Contentious kin in the country

Everyman presents stirring version of `Uncle Vanya'

TheaterReview

September 14, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Vanya Voynitsky is weary, fed-up and middle-aged. He has sacrificed his personal life for his work, only to learn that after 25 devoted, selfless years, he's about to be pink-slipped, made redundant, just plain shunted aside.

Anton Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya more than a century ago, but the title character's situation is remarkably up-to-date, and so is the stirringly fresh performance of Mitchell Hebert in that role at Everyman Theatre.

To describe the depiction of a discontented, worn-down character as "fresh" may seem like a contradiction in terms. But in this case, that seeming contradiction only reinforces the recognizably modern, naturalistic approach that Hebert has taken to Vanya.

Although he oozes sarcasm - particularly on the subject of his pompous, retired-professor brother-in-law - Hebert's Vanya isn't a mean or nasty soul. Popping into the hypochondriacal professor's bedroom and proclaiming, "Night nurse is here," Hebert's tone is that of a man who may be burned out but hasn't lost his sense of humor, or his edge.

He does lose his patience and temper, however. Vanya has spent his adult life slaving on his family's estate to support his brother-in-law's academic career. When Vanya realizes that the professor is nothing but a "fossilized oaf" and, worse yet, an oaf who considers the estate and Vanya himself completely disposable, Hebert allows his character's resentment to erupt into anger. Explosively and violently, he unleashes a lifetime's worth of pent-up emotions in an outburst that isn't merely justified, but cathartic.

Hebert's performance is one of the best things about director Vincent M. Lancisi's production, but it isn't the only reason this Russian classic is so accessible. Everyman is using a 1998 adaptation by Irish playwright Brian Friel. A writer whose work, such as Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations, has often been compared to that of Chekhov, Friel has an innate understanding of Vanya's rural setting and the stagnant lives of its characters. He also heightens the script's wit, a welcome touch, especially because Chekhov steadfastly regarded his plays as comedies.

But it is the play's heart, even more than its humor, that Lancisi and his cast get right. The bond between Hebert's Vanya and Maia De Santi as his grown niece and helpmate, Sonya, is poignant, particularly in the end when their roles shift, with her poised to become her uncle's strength. Also to her credit, De Santi portrays Sonya's unrequited love for the family's doctor as bittersweet, without descending into bathos.

Unrequited love is a recurring motif in Uncle Vanya, with both Vanya and the doctor fawning after the professor's beautiful young wife, Elena. In a sensitive performance, Deborah Hazlett depicts Elena as a woman all too aware of the dangers of boredom and loneliness. Together with De Santi's Sonya (and even Sonya's aging nanny, endearingly played by Vivienne Shub), Elena makes it clear that, though all of the characters have cause for self-pity, it's the women who get on with their lives.

As the doctor, Christopher Bloch has the appropriate charmingly cynical manner, but he doesn't seem quite magnetic enough to turn the heads of not only Sonya, but also Elena.

One of Friel's larger liberties was to build up the minor character of an impoverished hanger-on nicknamed "Waffles." Because the character is supposed to be irritating, it's difficult to tell whether it's Friel's translation that feels grating or Steven Cupo's portrayal, but his strained performance certainly doesn't help.

Milagros Ponce De Leon's set design and Dan Conway's lighting make the Voynitskys' country estate seem dark and remote enough to be a petri dish for frustration

"It's a very unhappy house this," Elena says to Vanya fairly early on. Happiness would be too much to expect from this household, which wobbles on a foundation of thwarted aspirations. But in the end, Chekhov, Friel and Everyman buttress that foundation with a sense of acceptance and maybe, just maybe, a hint of resilience.

Uncle Vanya

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 17

Tickets: $18-25

Call: 410-752-2208

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