Uncle Vanya

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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Anton Chekhov is the poet of disenchantment, delusion, and despair. His characters luxuriate in their unrequited desires and petty complaints. Most of them feel helpless to escape the prison of their unhappiness. So why do we return to them again and again?

Chekhov’s genius lies in the way he meticulously dissects his characters. (He was, after all, a doctor.) But while he never spares the scalpel, his uniquely generous viewpoint urges the audience to look beyond a character’s faults, to their humanity. This is accomplished without the bombast and cleverly constructed climaxes of the well-made play. What we experience in a good Chekhov production feels more random, more muddled. Rather like life.

This feeling of life is very much in evidence with the Antaeus production of Uncle Vanya. Director Robin Larsen has staged the show with a simple assurance that shies away from grandstanding or editorializing. Larsen trusts the actors and allows the eloquence of their performances to shine through.

Professor Serebryakov (Lawrence Pressman) and his much younger second wife, Yelena (Linda Park), have arrived at the rural estate owned by his first wife for an indefinite stay. This has thrown the normally quiet estate’s occupants into chaos. Vanya (Don R. McManus) and his friend Dr. Astrov (Jeffery Nordling) vie for the attention of the beautiful Yelena, while Sonya (Rebekah Tripp) quietly yearns for the doctor.

While Vanya is the titular character, Chekhov focuses equally on Yelena, Astrov and Sonya. McManus’ Vanya is wound tighter than any of his friends or family know. He has a lifetime of resentment percolating just below the surface, and, when he finally explodes, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry—a perfect Chekhovian moment. Tripp is an admirably sturdy and dependable Sonya who still harbors the plain girl’s dream that one day someone will look beyond her face and realize the love she has to share. Nordling’s performance as Astrov is a revelation. Handsome and self-loathing, he commands the stage as he reveals the doctor in all his complexity and contradictions. Park is a more kinetic and involved Yelena than usual, and this interpretation makes her more than just a bored woman playing with people’s hearts.

Pressman is an appropriately pompous and self-absorbed Serebryakov, while Lynn Milgrim brings a steadfastly maternal quality to Marina, the family nurse. As always, Antaeus has two complete casts playing the roles. But the vicissitudes of being an actor in Los Angeles mean that you might see various combinations of those casts at any given performance. But you can be sure that any cast will be worth seeing.

The production uses a new translation by the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, Annie Baker. The text is remarkably clear and colloquial, though its naturalistic snap tends to make a few of the longer speeches feel a little overblown.

Michael B. Raiford’s spare scenic design and Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s contemporary costumes work almost invisibly to augment the storytelling, while Leigh Allen’s lighting is notable for those scenes which use shadow to create a moody chiaroscuro effect.

Antaeus Theater    October 15 – December 6, 2015    www.Antaeus.org