Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review of Uncle Vanya at the Lantern Theatre

In his 1994 The Western Canon, Yale professor Harold Bloom catalogued the great literary works of Western Civilization since Dante. He capped his near-1,000 year progression with Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America, deeming it the last work fit for inclusion.


The original productions of Angels garnered multiple Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Its current off-Broadway revival at New York’s Signature Theatre Company has critics re-confirming its exalted place in literature.


I’ve seen multiple productions of both parts, and until recently, I felt inclined to agree with critical estimation. But then I watched the Lantern Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. While I can still appreciate the epic scope of Kushner’s six-hour Angels, his play nonetheless deals—per its subtitle of a “Gay Fantasia on National Themes”—with problems related to the “Democratic Age” in which Bloom catalogues it. Chekhov’s Vanya, by contrast, confronts the very problem of existence.


Fixed locale, timeless problems:


Chekhov’s play opens on the Serebryakov estate, most likely in present day Ukraine. However, with few textual exceptions—that call for a samovar and a guitar—Meghan Jones moderately detailed manor could exist in any Western nation.


And the problems Chekhov’s characters face feel equally timeless. The arrival of Professor Serebryakov (David Howey) and his young wife Yelena (Sarah Sanford) throws the normal routine of the estate’s denizens into chaos. They work the land and manage the estate’s affairs; he lists about complaining about petty academic struggles and geriatric health complaints.


His wife embodies the problems of beautiful women anywhere. Men dote on her, unless she ignores them (in which case they snap), and less attractive females unload the equally unfortunate perils of having their inferior genetic endowments overlooked. Watching Sarah Sanford’s eager eyes attend to everything but the reality of her life, I couldn’t help thinking of Hedda Gabler or Helen of Troy.


As the possibility of a more refined and leisurely life intrudes, all other concerns fly out the window. The local Doctor (Charlie DelMarcelle) trades his conservationist lifestyle for long nights of drinking, their neighbor Telegin (David Blatt) ruminates on his past misfortunes, and Serebryakov’s daughter Sonya (Melissa Lynch) pauses long enough from her work to realize that she’s aging, and no man might ever love her.


One line that carries them all: 


In any production of Vanya, the entire dramatic weight of the play rests on a single line, uttered by the overlooked titular character: “I could have been the next Schopenhauer…the next Dostoyevsky.” I’ve seen other translations which preface that line with “If I had lived a normal life.” Whether or not we agree with Vanya’s outburst depends on how well the actor has set up the line, and how much we view—at any age—the potential application of that sentiment to our own lives.


At the Lantern, Peter DeLaurier’s masterful performance balanced Vanya’s buffoonery with both solemnity and a desperate exhaustion at having failed in his own life because he satisfied the expectations of others. DeLaurier shows us Vanya’s intellectual strength (in solidly challenging Serebryakov) while indulging his moral weaknesses and self-pity. And the line, coming as a culmination of such a rich portrayal, evoked both scoffing laughter and my own chilled spine.


An existential crisis, averted: 


Director Kathryn MacMillan imparts tremendous care into the production, letting the play unfold along the lines of each character’s narrative. No member of the ensemble contributes anything less than a stellar performance. Her and the cast’s depiction of life at the estate transcends its locale, showing even the servants as trusted members of family, equally ready to offer support or rebuke, but unlike Vanya, all equally committed to a desire to solve their problems with a return to routine, even if only the lost status quo.


And by giving the production this sense, the Lantern’s production reveals something extraordinary, that Chekhov only achieves with conviction in Vanya. To many, the normal association of “existentialism” implies one of two meanings: the nihilism of Waiting for Godot or the reckless hedonism of Dorian Gray.


But Chekhov provided a third option, telling us in Vanya that we can find meaning and alleviate present-day suffering by working toward a better earthly future for those to come. He states this same idea more explicitly in his Three Sisters, but dulls its impact by repeatedly insisting upon it.  


At the Lantern, MacMillan and her cast let us feel it as the vital key to their own lives. It doesn’t matter if you accept that in your own life, or pity or hate the characters in Vanya for soldiering on by those lights in theirs.


What matters is that this staging possesses a rare quality, where its characters could not just reach across the fourth wall to sit down with us in our own lives, but that we could get up from our chairs and take their places on the stage. And that’s something only a great production of a great play can make you realize.