by Arney Rosenblat
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
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
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.
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
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.
Hunter College -
Frederick Loews Theater
East 68th Street between
Park and Lexington
Running time: approximately
1 hour and 50 minutes
Closing: October 28, 2018