Caroline Neff and Tim Hopper in Goodman Theatre's Uncle Vanya Credit: Liz Lauren

Robert Falls marks three decades as artistic director of Goodman Theatre this year. So how does he celebrate? In part by directing Uncle Vanya—Anton Chekhov’s dark comedy about a bunch of miserable Russians, facing mortality with the growing certainty that they’ve wasted their lives.

The choice seems telling, but Falls says, no, he’s not in the throes of an existential crisis. Uncle Vanya, he wrote in response to my e-mailed question, is “one of the greatest (and most deceptively difficult) plays ever written. . . . I like the play. I like all Chekhov plays and this one has become clearer with age. Didn’t think much beyond that. By the way, I don’t think I’ve wasted [my] extraordinarily blessed and happy life.”

It’d be foolish of me to question that last sentence when Falls has so far led one of the most charmed professional lives in Chicago—really, American—theater, jumping from tiny Wisdom Bridge to land prettily in what’s more or less turned out to be a tenured seat at a major regional theater. Falls has done Broadway, opera, and not one but two great stagings of The Iceman Cometh. Even his train wrecks, such as an athletically decadent 2006 King Lear, tend at least to be bold in their awfulness.

Can’t argue with his assessment of Uncle Vanya either. It’s a shaggy, sweet, funny, painful masterwork. And, with this staging, Falls indeed gives it all the clarity of his years.

Chekhov’s title character is a 47-year-old, unmarried gentleman farmer, living on the family estate he runs with his adult niece, Sonya. We’re told Vanya used to be passionate—”lit from within,” in fact. But he’s long since gone dark, he says, because “nobody wanted any of my light.”

Even so, he might’ve soldiered on, burying his loneliness in ledger entries, except that his former brother-in-law, Sonya’s dad, Serebryakov, has come for a long visit. Vanya and Sonya have grounds enough to hate Serebryakov, if only because they’ve slaved for decades to subsidize his big-city career as a philosophy professor. But gouty old Serebryakov has added romantic insult to injury by having an impossibly young and beautiful second wife, Yelena, who wanders the estate in a coma of uselessness. Smitten, Vanya alternates between frantic wooing and a deep, vodka-fueled lethargy.

Sonya, meanwhile, is all too aware that Yelena has absorbed not only Vanya’s attentions but those of her own secret love, an aging, alcoholic, yet poetic doctor named Astrov. Uncle Vanya can be thought of as a sort of thwarted version of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde: all yearnings and no orgasms. Nearly everyone we meet exists in a state of suspended adoration.

With an enormous assist from a fluent, gently idiomatic English-language adaptation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker (based on Margarita Shalina’s literal translation), Falls finds and follows a simple, human arc through Chekhov’s brilliantly deliberate mess. No Lear-like overreaching here. No ostentatious displays. No grand directorial conception, it seems, other than to get at the truth of these particular hearts and the manner of their intertwinings. Falls’s e-mail comment that the script has “become clearer with age” is proven over and over again throughout—partly in his appreciation for the humor implicit in the characters’ earnest folly, partly in his well-honed storytelling, and equally in his respect for the suffering of people who see their chances dwindling to nil, the consequences of their actions—or lack of same—finally kicking in.

Tim Hopper makes those mortal stakes vivid as Vanya, his angst and foolishness flashing compulsively through him like stroboscopic effects. At the other end of the spectrum, Marton Csonkas plays Astrov close to the vest, disclosing his inner life in small gestures offered apparently in passing. A perfect example: we see him at the beginning of the play, resting, exhausted, on a couch, yet jumping up (no weakness here!) at the sound of approaching footsteps—both his vanity and sense of duty expressed in a single motion. That Caroline Neff is cast against type as ostensibly frumpy Sonya renders her confused sense of self all the more evident, while Kristen Bush shows us how thoroughly Yelena is confined by the projections of the men around her. Marilyn Dodds Frank, Mary Ann Thebus, and Larry Neumann Jr. are all superb as idiosyncratic members of the household who look silly yet have as much to lose as anyone and far less control. Between them, Todd Rosenthal’s set and Keith Parham’s lighting allow the estate to speak eloquently for itself.  v