Pre-revolutionary Mother Russia was Chekhov’s metaphor for all his plays: the loneliness of an endless landscape, the vast national disappointments and the overwhelming resignation of her people to a life of suffering. UNCLE VANYA (playing at Apollinaire Theatre Company through January 15th) is considered one of Chekhov’s best works, with its unhappy, mismatched couples and its doomed ideals.
Vanya faces the realization he’s been passed by. He can no longer tolerate the myopic status quo … and he is especially appalled by the presence in his house of a beautiful woman who cannot be his. UNCLE VANYA is full of characters confronting their futility.
Vanya’s niece has to face the fact that the doctor she adores does not return her affection. The doctor only has eyes for the “professor’s” young wife and passion only for nature, which he sees ravaged by “progress.” (Craig Lucas’s quirky adaptation turns the doctor into a late 19th century Al Gore, warning everyone about pollution and global warming. And Lucas tarts up the language so that characters speak in 21st century epithets. I’m not so sure it works exactly but it doesn’t do any lasting harm. The emotional struggles are what make UNCLE VANYA percolate.)
Artistic director/production director Danielle Fauteux Jacques had the brilliant idea of staging each act in a different part of the Chelsea Theatre Works so that when the characters move to a new locale, so does the audience. The first act is set in the garden so we are treated to a backdrop of breathtaking birches, painted by set designer Nathan Lee. His interiors, too, are so authentic that we feel we have been taken on an intimate tour of the twenty-six room estate. One of the salons is lit only by candlelight (again the genius of Fauteux Jacques), reminding me of the gorgeous orange glow Stanley Kubrick achieved without artificial light in Barry Lyndon.
John Kuntz as Vanya seems Russian to the bone, his magnificent desperation simmering just below the surface. (You fear it may erupt at any moment.) Ronald Lacey is thoroughly charming as the doctor whose feelings for birches and beasts, not people, somehow ennoble him. Marissa Rae Roberts manages to make the privileged young wife (to Bill Salem’s pompous windbag) eminently sympathetic, while Erin Eva Butcher captures the tragic hopelessness of willing sacrifice.
Even the smaller roles speak volumes in the hands of remarkable actors like Kevin Fennessy and Ann Carpenter. All the elements fuse to make this UNCLE VANYA especially memorable.