Astrov: I sat down and I closed my eyes and thought: One hundred years from now. One hundred years from now: those who come after us. For whom our lives are showing the way. Will they think kindly of us? Will they remember us with a kind word, and, nurse, I wish to God that I could think so.
Marina: The people won’t remember. But God will.–Uncle Vanya
Well, the people haven’t remembered, not most of them anyway. Audiences these days don’t flock to Uncle Vanya (1899), nor to most of Anton Chekhov’s plays. Though generally praised for his perceptive portraits of the human condition–the humor and sorrow inherent in the frustration and disillusion of average lives–Chekhov isn’t particularly popular. Audiences have been put off over the years by academic, stiffly “eloquent” translations; by productions that overstress either the comedy or the pathos of each play; and by reams of critical analysis focusing on Chekhov’s insights into the ennui of the Russian soul at the end of the 19th century.
Much is made of the universality of Chekhov’s vision, but rarely is that universality brought to life. Chekhov’s characters so often seem bogged down in their own lassitude that the plays don’t speak to the present the way they’re supposed to. They seem like relics of another time and place, creations of a very special sensibility–historically important, of course, but not actually very interesting.
Here’s the exception: Michael Maggio’s staging of David Mamet’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya. It’s the first really gripping production of Chekhov I’ve ever seen, because the characters emerge through the action of the story. Mamet’s dialogue, rewritten from a literal translation of the Russian by Vlada Chernomirdik, is clean and lean; its excellence lies not in how it reads on the page but in the vigor and directness it brings out in the actors. Stripped of affectation, it feels contemporary without trying to sound “modern.” And Maggio’s direction, rather than trying to impose deep resonances on the work, attends to the funny-sad little plot with a swift, gently humming energy that allows a wealth of emotional and spiritual implications to emerge.
Ivan Petrovich Voynitzky, the Uncle Vanya of the title, has spent his adult life managing the estate that his aged brother-in-law, Serebryakov, inherited control of after Vanya’s sister’s death. Serebryakov, a university art professor, has retired and come to live on the estate with his attractive, youngish wife Yelena, with whom Vanya is openly infatuated. Though Vanya had always admired the brother-in-law to whom the estate’s income was delivered, he has become frankly contemptuous of the old man by the time the play opens–partly out of jealousy because of Yelena’s fidelity to a husband she obviously does not love, partly because of Serebryakov’s aloof and seemingly arrogant attitude toward the others living on the estate, among them his daughter Sonya.
When Serebryakov announces his intention to sell the estate, Vanya reaches his breaking point and tries to kill the man who has become the symbolic focal point of all his frustrations. Though the murder attempt is comically botched, and the two men reach a grudging truce, Serebryakov and Yelena leave the farm; just as well, too, since Yelena is having increasing difficulty staying true to her marriage vows given her attraction to Astrov, the hunky local doctor with whom the spinsterish Sonya is also in love. Left behind at the end, their hopes of romance and happiness dashed once and for all, Vanya and Sonya reaffirm their dedication to maintaining the estate, though it no longer holds any possibility of fulfillment for them.
In this spare and simple story, Chekhov not only paints a vivid picture of lives lived in quiet desperation, he also weaves an ironic yet compassionate meditation on the loss of faith by reworking in distinctly human terms the myth of Adam and Eve in Eden. In Chekhov’s version, it is God, not the humans, who is expelled from the garden: Serebryakov gets away from the farm as soon as he can, barely clinging to a semblance of his former dignity, while Vanya and Sonya stay behind. Chekhov establishes Serebryakov as the play’s God figure early on–he’s almost literally worshiped by Vanya’s mother and tended to with priestly sacrificial devotion by Yelena, and Vanya’s denunciations of him sound exactly like the rantings of an angry atheist. Events expose Serebryakov as an illegitimate god, a hollow authority figure who has wielded ridiculous dominance over Vanya and Sonya’s lives. But rather than taking control of their own lives, Vanya and Sonya cling harder than ever to the illusion of a God who will reward them with merciful love and eternal peace.
Maggio stresses the theme of illusions that warp people’s lives with the aid of his extremely talented designers. Linda Buchanan’s beige, wood-paneled set looks less like a room than a picture of a room; behind it, through the windows, we see huge black-and-white photos of the sky and the fields that surround the house. This isn’t a home, it’s an image of a home, as drained of color as Vanya’s life has been drained of joy. And Rob Milburn’s synthesizer sound track, though influenced by Russian folk melodies, is glossy and artificial.
Inhabiting this unreal world, however, are a group of very real and vital people. With his gargly voice and burly bearing, John Mahoney is a bluff, managerial Vanya, whose declarations about his squandered potential–“I could have been the new Dostoyevski, I could have designed a new philosophy”–are funny while the pain behind them is wrenching. Scott Jaeck, as the life-loving doctor Astrov, bemoaning his own decay but proclaiming a remarkably relevant environmental philosophy, and Isabella Hofmann, as the fragile and foolish Yelena, are a credible couple of thwarted lovers. Howard Witt is on the mark as the proud, unhappy old professor, coping with physical deterioration and teeming with resentment at the futility of his life. And Linda Emond, an extraordinary actress whose skills deepen with every new role, inhabits the body as well as the soul of plain, repressed, gawky, lovelorn Sonya with a fierce hopefulness that feeds on its own desperation.