After premiering in 1899, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya went on to become a theatrical staple not just in Russia but worldwide. A new production in the Washington, D.C., area conveys the play’s themes effectively.
Ivan (Vanya) Voinitsky (Mitchell Hebert) is forty-seven and has lived on and managed his late sister’s country estate for twenty-five years, latterly with the assistance of his sister’s daughter Sophia (Kimberly Gilbert), who has inherited the estate. They have taken very little of the income from the estate for themselves, sending the bulk of it to the sister’s husband, Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Jerry Whiddon), whom they idolize. Alexander is now retired and remarried to the much younger Yelena (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey). The couple come to stay at the estate over the summer, changing the daily routine and, more deeply, causing psychological havoc.
Vanya is filled with anger and regret. He no longer regards Alexander as a brilliant intellectual but as a person without insights, a mere regurgitator of the ideas of others. Vanya is bitter that he has devoted his life to this mediocrity and, on top of this, lusts after his wife.
For her part, the kindhearted Sophia is in love with the local doctor , Mikhail Astrov (Ryan Rilette), who, in between his drinking bouts, also lusts after Alexander’s wife. This infatuation causes him to neglect the one thing that gives a satisfying direction to his life: his attempts to reforest the district.
The scenes all occur in one setting inside the estate manor, though there is some action off stage. The movements of the actors within the single setting capture the ultimate defeatism and despair of most of the characters. Despite all their talk and actions, they do not break out of their self-pity and ennui. They seem to learn nothing, not even Alexander. Though in the end he moves from the state to a town, he remains largely self-absorbed and inconsiderate of others.
Mr. Hebert’s intense portrayal of Vanya captures his many moods and ultimate fecklessness, Mr. Whiddon’s Alexander is comparatively colorless, but I suspect that that is due more to the role than the performance. Miss Fernandez-Coffey plays the ambiguous Yelena effectively, not trying to mute the ambiguity. Miss Gilbert’s Sophia is appealing and sad.
Most of the characters are caught in an unsatisfying predicament due at least as much to their own decisions as to anything else. Uncle Vanya is, for the most part, a tragedy of psychological weakness rather than of fate.
This adaptation by Annie Baker is performed at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland (a suburb of Washington) though May 3, 2015.