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Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts

Jay O. Sanders




                        by Arney Rosenblat


The initial offering of the Hunter Theater Project, and a Richard Nelson imprint production, brings Chekhov to life for contemporary audiences.


Seeing and connecting, and connect you likely will as the characters frequently speak directly to the audience, will make you feel like a voyeur to the floundering, unfulfilled lives of some overlooked neighbors in this intimate telling of the Anton Chekhov play Uncle Vanya.  You may also see shadows of your own story as life rarely turns out as we expect it will.


Richard Nelson is known for his penchant of presenting tightly observed families as they experiences the joys, tensions, frustrations and sorrows of daily interactions.  His "Gabriel" and "Apple" family sagas at the Public Theater are two such examples in which he places his characters, as he has done in Uncle Vanya, in kitchen settings where their stories unfold as they move around one another making meals and pouring drinks, in this case vodka. You might even look at the Apple Family trilogy subtitled "Life in the Country." as his warm-up to Uncle Vanya.


The audience first meets the residents of the Serebryakov estate when they walk on stage and arrange the spare homey kitchen set with its tables, chairs, food and drink in their simple modern day attire.


Kate Kearney-Patch as the former nanny (far left), Celeste Arias as Elena (small table above), Jon DeVries as Prof. Serebryakov (head of table, far right). Alice Cannon as Marya, Vanya's mother (right, near end of table), Jay O. Sanders as Vanya (left, near end of table), Yvonne Woods (seated on chair)  photo:Joan Marcus


Vanya (Jay O.Sanders) and his niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods) have been maintaining for many years this Serebryakov country estate which is owned by Sonya's father (Jon DeVries) who was married to Vanya's sister. Sonya's mother, now deceased. Vanya's brother-in-law. an aging discontent professor of art has recently shown up at the estate with a young attractive new wife (Celeste Arias) and their presence is severely disrupting the estate's routine not only for Vanya and Sonya but also for family friend, Dr. Astrov (Jesse Pennington)  The doctor has significantly increased his visits to the estate ostensibly because of the needs of the ailing professor but also because of his strong attraction to the professor's wife, sentiments which are likewise shared by Vanya. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Sonya is deeply in love with the doctor, who treats her with the affection of a brother or friend.


Celeste Arias as Elena and Jesse Pennington


The impeccably discerning version of the play by Nelson and noted Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has been streamlined to a bit more than 100 minutes, which has heightened both the humor and pathos of the story.


The production too has been stripped down to its essence.  There are no special effects or flurries just the heartbreak, longing and resignation of ordinary people.  And when a gunshot fired by a distraught Vanya disrupts the accepted order of the characters lives, it's not menace that one feels but empathy for an ultimate eruption of feeling which has been tamped down for countless years.


The totally realistic performances of the outstanding cast strongly helps to focus the impact of the story with Jay O. Sullivan providing a career topping performance as Vanya.  With his plowman physique, suggesting that he could actually handle the work required in running a farm and his sonorous baritone voice, Saunders creates one of the most masculine Vanya's to tread upon the stage.  He also, in his climatic breakdown when the professor selfishly proposes selling off the family estate which actually belongs to Sonya,  conveys one of the most vulnerable Vanya's as he unleashes his anger and frustration over a wasted life.


Particularly poignant are his comments leading up to his emotional meltdown about the professor "lecturing and writing about what intelligent people have long known and stupid people aren't interested in; meaning that for thirty-five years he's been pouring empty into void," and himself, "I was a shining light that never shown on anybody."


Yvonne Woods' self-effacing ("It's so terrible I'm not beautiful"), sensitive portrayal of Sonya still manages to convey inner strength and resilience which make her closing words about her resignation to a loveless life of monotonous work and duty all the more heart breaking.


Celeste Arias captures in her portrayal of Elena, the character's sad realization that although she is beautiful, she is lacking in the will to do anything about the deficiencies she knows she has as a human being.  "In music, in my husband's house, in all my romances - in short, everywhere -I've been a minor character."


Jon DeVries as Professor Serebryakov is perfectly oleaginous as he flouts his self-deluded eminence.  Yet he still manages to evoke sympathy from the viewer who is watching age and public disinterest decay his body and soul.


Jon DeVries


In his role as the alcoholic doctor Astrov, Jesse Pennington projects a quiet magnetism as well as the prevailing impotence preventing any of the characters from making a change to their prescribed futures.  Astrov's concerns about the environmental damage being inflicted on the forest lands around them makes his character especially contemporary.


Also distinguished in their smaller roles are Alice Cannon as Marya, Vanya's mother and avid fan of the professor over her son and Kate Kearney-Patch as Marina, the former yet forever nanny who tries to sooth the endless pain of the family that surrounds her.


Supporting the compact script is the likewise compact set design by Jason Ardizzone-West, while Jennifer Tipton provides discreet lighting and Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss round out the production with their utilitarian costuming.  Will Pickens adds a small forest of mikes overhead to enhance the sound.


Kudos to producer Gregory Mosher and his team for launching the Hunter Theater Project, an engaging new experience in theater.


Some friendly advice to anyone who has hearing issues, secure an assisted hearing device before entering the theater if you want to appreciate the performance.


Uncle Vanya

Hunter College - Frederick Loews Theater

East 68th Street between Park and Lexington

212 -772-4448

 Running time: approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes

Closing: October 28, 2018