KPBS AIRDATE: March 26, 1997
The grand irony is that, throughout “Uncle Vanya,” the characters obsess about whether they will be remembered fondly in 100 years. Meanwhile, of course, their lives are decaying into nothingness. But never mind that. Here it is, exactly 100 years after Anton Chekhov penned his masterpiece, and yet, rooted as they are in 19th century Russian provincial existence, we are still intrigued by these lives of quiet desperation.
“Uncle Vanya” follows the pattern of all Chekhov’s Big Four: there is an arrival, a sojourn and a departure. Here, a retired professor, apparently an intellectual sham, has spent his life leeching off his hard-working family, especially his daughter Sonya and his brother-in-law Vanya. When he brings his new young wife to his country estate, he uncoils a spiral of family intrigue and frustrated love.
As always, Chekhov creates characters who are a little ridiculous, as representatives of universal human folly and the particular caste system of pre-Revolutionary Russia. The latter theme, that weaves inevitably through Chekhov’s work, could date the material. But with an adaptation like that of David Mamet, the language and thoughts are revitalized in clever and colloquial dialogue. Mamet’s text underscores Chekhov’s premise: life is painful, but amusing; exasperating but always fascinating.
These layers are artfully unpeeled in Todd Salovey’s richly textured production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. He has perfectly balanced the humor and the pathos of the piece, a rare and commendable achievement.
As the eponymous anti-hero, Mike Genovese is a mass and mess of emotion, a broken man who, having thrown away his life and his love, contemplates suicide. But in Chekhov plays, people don’t kill themselves; they just go on living. As the idealistic but dissolute and disillusioned doctor, Douglas Roberts is spectacular, and Carla Harting, as the plain-Jane daughter Sonya, is a wonderfully centered presence, a superb contrast with the beautiful, sultry, indolent Sabrina LeBeauf, whose mid-show scene with Sonya is a delicious, school-girl collusion. Jonathan McMurtry underplays the professor; he’s not as pompous and pedantic as he might be, but enough to explain Vanya’s disgust and rancor.
The woody set design, evocative sound and live music contribute to a moving and triumphant production.
If you’ve shied away from Chekhov in the past, thinking it was too serious or ponderous or inaccessible, now’s your chance. With its focus on misdirected love and vapid beauty, ecological decay and end-of-century malaise, this is Vanya-time extraordinaire.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.