Opinion ‘Uncle Vanya’: Bleak, Bare, Powerful

By Christian McLean
Janet Sarno as Marina with Daniel Becker as Telegin in Guild Hall’s intimate “black box” presentation of “Uncle Vanya,” which will continue tonight through Sunday. Gary Mamay

    It’s a bold risk to dismiss the 360-seat capacity of Guild Hall’s John Drew, ignore over $10 million in renovations, and turn the 80-year-old gem into a black- box theater, but Stephen Hamilton’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” pays off. In an intimate and powerful theater experience, the audience (55 seats total) is placed right onstage, only inches from the action. 
    First staged over a century ago, “Uncle Vanya” is incredibly current, thanks to Paul Schmidt’s contemporary translation. Instead of muddling through Russian accents and antiquated phrases, the language gives the audience an instant point of contact. Lines like “People are freaks” and themes of conservation and deforestation remind us that the human experience hasn’t changed much in 100 years. 
    The sparse set design and sharp costumes help root the story in the waning days of 19th-century rural Russia. The characters are idle and bored, and most of them long for someone they cannot have, which in other productions might have led to an idle, boring show. Despite their melancholy roles, Mr. Hamilton and his actors bring out the humor Chekhov intended in this dark play and create a rich, three-dimensional portrayal of human experience. 
    Astrov, an overworked country doctor haunted by the death of a patient, shows the most depth. As he becomes captivated with Yelena, Mr. Hamilton takes Astrov through a full arc of emotions, from jovial and hard-working to increasingly drunken, serious, and depressed. A skilled actor as well as director, he is definitely having fun with the role.
    Vanya is presented as a shell of a man with three emotions: scorn for his brother-in-law, lust for his brother-in-law’s second wife, Yelena, and despair for himself. Fred Melamed (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “A Serious Man”) plays Vanya as a blubbering has-been; a man who has wasted the better part of his life serving at the mercy of his brother-in-law, Serebiakov. Now, infatuated by Yelena, Vanya does nothing but pine for her. He doesn’t even manage the family estate anymore, instead leaving all responsibility to his niece, Sonya. It isn’t until Vanya confronts the professor in the third act, that we truly see the extent of Mr. Melamed’s ability as an actor.
    Herb Foster construes the role of Serebiakov as an incredibly self-absorbed, aging blowhard. Everyone else is ancillary. Since he talks at and not with the other characters, even when he is sympathetic to his wife it always seems to be about him. That same narcissism offers some nice comedic moments later on.
    Yelena, the object of Vanya’s and Astrov’s affection, is the most bored of all. Rachel Feldman presents Yelena as indifferent to almost everything, especially Vanya’s incessant doting. With glassy-eyed stares and measured speech, her cold lack of interest in country life and country people is apparent. It is in stark contrast to the energy of her stepdaughter, Sonya. There is a light there. Sonia is bored, she is overworked, she is plain, but Alicia St. Louis creates a young girl whose crush on Astrov is sweet and real. During Astrov’s speech about deforestation, St. Louis fills with excitement. She beams. 
    Telegin (“Waffles”), played by Daniel Becker, and Marina (“Nanny”), Janet Sarno, are skillful in their supporting roles, creating layered characters in only a handful of lines.
    The sets are bare — a heavy wooden table, a handful of chairs, and a backdrop of lifeless, grim trees — echoing the theme of deforestation. The design is the right balance between the greatness of the estate and the decline of the people who live on it, and the cackling of crows at the start of the show is a great portent of the bickering to follow.
    “Uncle Vanya” is a well-staged, bleak play. Tortured, and longing for something better, the country people are condemned to lives of monotony; the only spark any of them show involves unrequited love.
    The play has been cleverly adapted for this day and age. If there is any moral, it is that in the end we all must get down to work. We must do our job, not get caught up in emotions, not covet thy neighbor (or his wife). We must work.  The entire cast does just that, and in so doing creates a well-developed, adroitly executed evening of theater.
    “Uncle Vanya” is in its final week, with performances tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday at 8 and on Sunday at 7. Tickets, at $25 or $10 for students, can be purchased online at guildhall.org or theatermania.com, or at the Guild Hall box office.

    Christian McLean is the conference coordinator of Southampton Arts Summer at Stony Brook Southampton and the director of its writing workshops in Florence, Italy.