The setup: Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya takes guts to produce and mad brains and talent to produce tolerably. Don't go to that link and read it; besides its morose nature, it's full of those Russians with multiple nicknames and pretty hard to follow on the page (frustration bonus!).
It's two hours of bitching and moaning from people who are so non-self-actualizing, you just want to slap them. I can't think of a local company any better equipped to meet the challenge than Space 55, so we've gotten lucky, but for only two more nights.
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The execution: So the secret to good Chekhov for Americans is, first of all, using actors to play the characters, so that we can tell them apart. Then it's important to rehearse tirelessly and mindfully, so that conversations that would send the average person screaming into the night become interesting and moving. All those pistons are firing here.
It takes great acting and directing to make this batch of selfish, broken, oblivious people, seemingly trapped together at a stifling country house, into individuals we can feel for. The ensemble stops short of making any personality or issue bigger than it should be; the situation hovers true to life and moves at a realistically (if sometimes infuriatingly) gradual pace.
Adaptor/director Charlie Steak's script is a big help, too. I don't know which translation of the play he used -- or whether he speaks Russian -- but the subtle changes he made to declunkify and smooth out the dialogue, which is very thought-heavy, make a great difference in how easy it is to relate to for both actors and audience, while keeping it in the appropriate timeframe. I was somewhat thrown by a passage near the end about getting one new horseshoe (I think Steak might have understood a reference to a single horse from a team as a reference to one of a single horse's four feet), which sounded particularly off coming from a character who's a farmer and would know better in that particular context, but in general the script is brainy and serves the author well. The uncredited set and Colleen Lacy's costumes are beautiful adjuncts to the performances. Far from being fanatical about historical precision, each has a timeless and emotionally evocative quality that emphasizes the universality of the concerns of family, health, romance, business, and environment.
Doctor Astrov, a character you wind up almost hating for being well-adjusted (if only by comparison, because he's a son of a bitch in some ways as well), loves and protects the forest and talks often about how human beings are cutting down too many trees when they have other alternatives. The set, which serves nicely as both outdoors and assorted rooms, is almost entirely composed of wooden things without calling attention to that fact: heaps of distressed cabinets, cubbyholes, shutters, and shelves, a framework of raw new lumber, and a clutch of old wooden library chairs, school desks, and one grand, decaying Adirondack. (Also lots of paper that people schlep in and out of the playing area as though it's important.)
At the beginning of the show, the chairs are lined up as though for a class or lecture. (The character whose presence brings all the discontent to a crisis is a professor, but he doesn't teach -- the arrangement is an image that flashes and is then dismantled.) The rows of seating also bring the vanished forest itself to mind, a grove of tree ghosts.
As the action progresses, characters frequently grab, move, offer, repurpose, and even interact with the chairs in natural and breathtaking ways, as though the inanimate objects of their lives are the only things they have power over, in fruitless (! and leafless, as summer turns to fall in the story's timeline) activity not unlike the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. It's atypical to have a director and designer's symbolic concepts work so benignly -- more often, you either feel assaulted by an intellectual bludgeon or you don't get it at all. This gradual and unforced revelation is very cool.
Shawna Franks, as the beautiful, idle, discouraged, self-loathing Elena, is a force of what she cleverly has everyone believing is nature. Watching her body languish uncomfortably all over the stage while her dark eyes alternately wander and pierce is one of Valley theater's few unalloyed pleasures.
Her castmates have perhaps even harder work to do, as they need to let Franks be the alluring, vital spark in the group without receding into the background, and they do a great job. Richard Briggs has a lot on his plate as Vanya. Okay, misery. Misery, mostly, and plenty of it. It's not easy or fun to practically be hyperventilating from despair, and Briggs does it while continuing to seem like kind of a regular guy.
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Benjamin Garrett, as his good friend Astrov, takes a part that's kind of extra-speechy, even for Chekhov, and makes it dance on the captivating line between gregariousness and isolation. And Amy Ouzoonian's Sonia is a twitchy, inhibited heartbreaker.
The verdict: Honestly, if you've ever wondered, for example, how someone can be filled with guilt and resentment simultaneously, this play will prove both disturbing and cathartic. After the show, I was chatting with another audience member and we agreed that if we heard any of these scenes going on at home, we'd quietly turn and leave the room. Along with being simply a marvelous showcase of local artists in a challenging work, the genius of this Uncle Vanya is that it makes you want to stay.
Uncle Vanya continues through Saturday, March 30, at Space 55 Theatre, 636 East Pierce Street. For tickets, $15, click here or call 602-663-4032.