KPBS AIRDATE: June 13, 2003
It’s a banner time for local theater. Of course, we’re all still cheering Jack O’Brien’s spectacular win of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, the delectable, irresistible “Hairspray,” which will be coming to San Diego on tour next summer. And the La Jolla Playhouse, in the same week it opened its new season, broke ground on a magnificent theater complex.
While the Playhouse is expanding, it’s also coming full cycle, completing the Chekhov classic quartet it began in 1985 with “The Seagull,” which was followed by gorgeous productions of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Three Sisters.” Now it’s high time for “Uncle Vanya.” And in high style, this production is a world premiere, of playwright Emily Mann’s crisp, clear and contemporary adaptation. Mann also directs the cast, which features the acclaimed Amanda Plummer as the hard-working, heart-sick Sonya. I still remember her at the Playhouse back in 1983, when she was a wondrous Juliet. Now, older and wiser, she brings depth and fortitude, a plain-spoken vulnerability, courage and resilience to the role of the dutiful niece of the titular Uncle, here vibrantly played by Steven Skybell, his frustrated sexuality coupled with a failure mentality. This Vanya is a jealous, pathetic man, blaming everyone else for his lifetime of disappointments.
Mann’s adaptation subtly and surprisingly shifts the balance a bit, giving more strength to the women. Though their 19th century Russian society subjugates them, the two central female characters take control of whatever they can: Sonya cannot have the far-sighted but disillusioned doctor she so desires, but she is the only one who can bring Vanya back to his senses and back to his pitiful life’s work. Sonya’s interactions with her young stepmother, Yelena, are wonderful. I just wish, with all the talk of her incomparable beauty, Natacha Roi looked more striking, especially in the first act. But her submerged passion is palpable and her scenes with the doctor (Michael Siberry) sizzle. As her husband, the pedantic, hypochondriacal professor, William Biff McGuire is a formidable presence, less villainous than many, and more human than most who’ve played the role. And in an amazing, cross-county coup de théâtre, scenic designer Michael Yeargan has managed to create, simultaneously, glorious sets at our two Tony Award-winning theaters. His elaborate design for the Globe’s “Pentecost” is nothing short of miraculous. At the La Jolla Playhouse, simplicity and evocation reign, with stately trees ringing the stage, surrounding indoor and outdoor settings — a samovar here, rain-drenched windows there. Spare, suggestive, and beautifully lit by Nancy Shertler. Overall, this may not be a “Vanya” for the ages, but it’s a credible, vigorous, heartfelt production.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2003 Patté Productions Inc.