Uncle Vanya

Apple Tree Theatre

Anton Chekhov once suggested that “one ought to write a play in which people come and go, eat, talk about the weather, and play cards.” Try pitching that to Broadway investors. Like so many other unpopular but great playwrights–Lope de Vega, Racine, Strindberg–Chekhov has long been less admired on the Great White Way than “appreciated” in regional not-for-profit theaters. And with those theaters in increasing financial jeopardy, his seemingly plotless, monotonous, petty work may become rare there as well. Fortunately Apple Tree Theatre, like other Equity houses here, still occasionally banks on classic if challenging theater, and its handsome, balanced production of Uncle Vanya, directed by Mark Lococo and performed by an impressive cast, shows that taking Chekhov seriously offers something better than entertainment.

It’s too bad that for much of the first two acts, however, Apple Tree mistakes taking Chekhov seriously with taking his words at face value. Chekhov buried dramatic action under layers of indirect dialogue: the characters almost never express themselves fully or appropriately, and the resulting tension between what’s said and what’s really going on creates the play’s intrigue. Just as important, his characters’ inarticulate stumbling toward self-expression makes them slightly clownish–and fully human. During this show’s first half, though, the performers behave as if their lines convey everything the characters mean. They don’t seem to be lying, evading the truth, or deflecting their feelings, which makes for theater that feels more explained than lived.

Moreover much of the humor evaporates, as in the opening scene of act two. Self-important retired professor Serebryakov, who’s visiting his daughter Sonya’s estate for the summer, is rubbing his gout-ridden legs and grousing to his young wife, Elena, “Being old is disgusting, and even more disgusting to everyone around you.” He should seem buffoonish. Perhaps he’s even trying to pass off his true feelings as a joke, leaving Elena in a typical Chekhovian corner with no way to respond. But Patrick Clear plays the scene as pure psychological trauma, Serebryakov’s disgust as imagined by Sam Shepard. The old man becomes merely unpleasant instead of pitiable, and no tension develops between him and his wife.

The tension between the characters is everything in Uncle Vanya, as a web of sublimated resentments and unrequited affections ensnares everyone on Sonya’s estate. She and her Uncle Vanya have toiled on their modest land for years to support Serebryakov, once imagined to be a brilliant scholar but now revealed as a hack. And while she’s exuberantly in love with local doctor Astrov, a noble dreamer who can’t be bothered to care about the suffering of the peasants under his care, he has eyes only for Elena. As does Vanya, for whom the impossibility of romance epitomizes every failure in his mundane, wasted life.

All the characters stew over something or someone, and in the final two acts the cast begins to tap into those subterranean streams. At this point real drama and humor take over the stage–even the guy two seats down was riveted, and he’d fallen dead asleep long before intermission. Leading the way as diligent, neglected Sonya is Kate Fry, who conveys Chekhov’s subtext so palpably that oceans of misery are apparent even in her character’s most joyful moments. The other cast members don’t create inner lives of comparable depth–Ross Lehman’s fey, mannered Vanya, the play’s most pathetic figure, is the least complex of the bunch–but they harbor enough secrets to make the action compelling. Most impressive, Lococo doesn’t shy away from Chekhov’s disquieting but unavoidable conclusion: human attempts to sustain hope–through medicine, science, philosophy, love–are hollow delusions. Endurance is our only lot in life. It’s an outlook that may keep Chekhov off Broadway, but Apple Tree shows just how satisfying an uncomfortable truth can be.

When: Through 7/17: Wed 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM

Where: Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm, Highland Park

Price: $33-$38

Info: 847-432-4335