All of Anton Chekhov’s best plays offer an unsentimental look at the things that make human beings miserable: unrequited love, unrewarding work, unfulfilling relationships, the inevitability of aging and death. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The measure of a man is how much truth he can stand.” Chekhov could stand a lot, perhaps because his hard life forced him to.

He was born in poverty, the son of a failed businessman and the grandson of a freed serf, and suffered throughout his short life from tuberculosis. He worked his way through school–and helped support his family–by writing humorous little pieces for Russian newspapers. But becoming a doctor didn’t free him from the struggle for economic security. A doctor in 19th-century Russia didn’t make the kind of money a physician does in America today, and frequently Chekhov’s patients couldn’t afford to pay him. So throughout his life he supplemented his income by writing.

I have no idea how being a writer affected Chekhov’s career as a doctor, but you can see the physician in every line of his work, especially in the fine production of Uncle Vanya running at Steppenwolf. Like a doctor studying a patient, Chekhov is alert to the telling detail, the important symptom. And he records everything as clearly and exactly as he can.

Uncle Vanya, for example, has sacrificed everything for his brother-in-law, Serebryakov, who’s lived well at the university and won acclaim for his writings on art while Vanya has spent his life running the farms on Serebryakov’s family estate. A more sentimental writer might have made Serebryakov grateful or Vanya humble and happy. Chekhov does neither. Instead he gives us Vanya in all his middle-aged crabbiness, aware that he’s wasted his best years on a man who took all he could and now thinks nothing of selling the estate and leaving Vanya without a livelihood or a home. Similarly, Serebryakov is not the villain in a melodrama–he’s just a limited, selfish human being in a play that’s full of such people, all trapped in purgatories of their own making.

This insistence on realism is the play’s great strength: the sadness in Uncle Vanya can be purgative. It’s also potentially the play’s downfall: in the hands of a director unwilling or unable to explore its psychological depths, this comedy-drama will devolve into a four-act soap opera. Every character desires something or someone he or she can’t have. Vanya’s niece, Sonya, yearns for Dr. Astrov. But he and Vanya have fallen in love with the beautiful Yelena, who married the older, pompous Serebryakov when Vanya’s sister died. Chekhov’s story moves far too slowly for a soap opera, though. Sonya’s crush on the doctor takes three acts to evolve from mild infatuation to a tentative declaration of feelings to an understated but still brutal rejection.

The play drove Tolstoy crazy. “Where is the drama?” he complained to an actor friend about Uncle Vanya. “It doesn’t go anywhere!” That’s the point, of course. Like life, the play goes nowhere fast–it just unfolds. And if you have a strong need to impose messages on stories–as Tolstoy did at that time, struggling to see everything as a Christian allegory–it will drive you crazy too.

But if you’re willing to watch and withhold judgment while Chekhov shows you lives ruined by a casual remark or minor setback, you’ll see what makes him great: an eye for the fine distinctions that create vital, unique characters. And to bring those out you need a strong, seasoned, sensitive director–like Sheldon Patinkin in this production–and talented actors who can elicit the script’s rich layers.

You also need a good translation. I can’t pretend to know how faithful Curt Columbus’s new one is. But the dialogue flows, and it never recalls the stilted Victorian English of so many older translations, which often make Chekhov’s Russians sound like British aristocrats. This translation makes them seem American. Dr. Astrov, for example, seems to speak with a slight southwestern dialect reminiscent of NPR’s Baxter Black, the “cowboy poet.” That may be Jeff Perry’s doing, however. It’s not always a good tactic, especially when Perry pushes it. But most of the time Columbus’s choices achieve the desired effect of translation: a sense of transparency.

Just as Columbus’s words never get in the way of Chekhov’s drama, Patinkin’s simple, no-nonsense direction realizes the play’s true potential. You can sense his presence in the confident pace, the rich performances, and the seamless integration of lighting, sound, and set design. But if you asked me to point out where Patinkin ended and, say, Austin Pendleton began in his witty, weary take on Vanya, I couldn’t say. (As Terry McCabe points out in his book Mis-directing the Play, too many hotdogging directors ruin perfectly good shows with wild interpretations.)

A director’s true work is behind the scenes, and if it’s done well, the show should withstand the crosswinds that seem to plague every production. Steppenwolf’s press opening was case in point. Monica Payne–the actress playing Sonya, a key role–was sick. Taking her place was understudy Heather Anne Prete, who, I understand, had not yet learned her lines or even done a full run-through. Yet she excelled as Sonya, moving us with her gradual realization that the man she loves cannot love her. To overcome that kind of handicap takes a solid staging and a giving, tight ensemble.

Besides Pendleton, Perry, and Prete, the show features Sally Murphy, Robert Breuler, and Rondi Reed. Of course impressive actors are routine at Steppenwolf–but all too often they appear in flawed shows. This time the play and the production live up to the ensemble’s expertise.

Unfortunately Terrapin Theatre gives a flawed performance of Steven Dietz’s flawed one-act meditation on Chekhov’s The Seagull, offering 42 variations on a key scene. But the play comes off as yet another opportunity for this overly intellectual playwright to indulge in academic onanism.

The characters discuss their motivations, what they could have done, what they might do next. But never for a moment in this hour-long dissection does Dietz move us or reveal the depths of Chekhov’s characters, even though he unpacks all their emotional baggage: Treplev the failed playwright is unstable and spoiled while Nina the beautiful actress who jilts him for an older, more successful writer is blind and ambitious.

Scott Letcher and Franette Liebow exhibit no chemistry, and on those rare occasions when Dietz asks them to play the subtext, they’re unable to convey their characters’ feelings. Letcher in particular freezes, his eyes turning glassy, his smile tightening, whenever the emotions in a scene become too strong.

Perhaps director Brad Nelson Winters failed to uncover the play’s point. Or maybe he discovered there was none. In either case, The Nina Variations should be called “The Nada Variations.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.