It’s no secret that Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a hell of a play, but it sometimes seems like a secret that the play doesn’t have to be hell. It can be perplexing that Chekhov called Vanya a comedy, because it’s a terribly depressing story about terribly depressed people with little hope of their lives ever improving. It’s easy to forget — all too often by the performers as well as the audience — how much fun it is along the way.
The staging of Vanya by outgoing San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near leaves no question that it’s a comedy, and a very funny one. Near and her stellar California Shakespeare Theater cast beautifully bring out the humor in the text, rather than layering on extraneous shtick.
Lines that are often played as gently teasing are entirely straight-faaced in this production, and are much funnier for it. When James Carpenter as the old professor Alexander rants passive-aggressively about how everyone would be happier if he were dead, it’s without a trace of irony. He means it, or thinks he does, and that’s what makes his petulant rage so funny. Likewise, the doctor Astrov’s speech about how disgusted he is with people who are disgusted with people is delivered by Andy Murray with such passion and seeming unawareness of any contradiction that makes the irony palpable.
The gout-plagued professor and his young new wife Yelena have come to the estate long looked after by his daughter Sonya and his late wife’s brother Vanya, who feels he’s wasted his life supporting his illustrious brother-in-law. Vanya and the frequently visiting doctor Astrov are both smitten with Yelena, while the unnoticed Sonya moons over Astrov. In another play this might lead to romance, intrigue, and a lot of running around, but here it results in unrelenting sloth, tedium, and unhappiness.
The 1899 play seems strikingly contemporary today, between its depiction of depression and a passionate plea for ecological conservation, but that’s all in the original. The adaptation by McCarter Theatre artistic director Emily Mann does an excellent job of bringing these things out and ensuring that the play’s as accessible as possible, but it’s all in service of letting Chekhov be Chekhov.
Erik Flatmo’s set is more fanciful, made up of planks like an unusually hilly ship’s deck, with free-standing doorways that rise out of the floor. Raquel M. Barreto’s costumes are a comely period-appropriate assortment of suits, peasant dresses, and fancy gowns for Yelena. Jeff Mockus creates a credible soundscape of offstage storms and horse-drawn carriages. However, the appealing mix of boisterous a cappella Slavic songs and moody warbling saxophone music is sometimes intrusively loud, and the way the thunder and lightning (nicely lit by York Kennedy) punctuates dramatic moments is a bit heavy-handed.
Carpenter demonstrates a masterful mixture of pompousness and childish petulance as the professor, and Murray has a compelling brazenness and rugged charisma as Astrov, the frustrated idealist fallen into decadence. Howard Swain displays priceless puppy-dog simplicity as ruddy Waffles, the eager-to-please hanger-on that the others routinely ignore, from his toothy grin to his hopeless resignation when talking about the wife who ran out on him. Barbara Oliver gets in some impeccably timed zingers as the no-nonsense nanny, and Joan Mankin is imposingly hard-nosed as Vanya’s mother.
Annie Purcell’s performance as Sonya gains force beautifully as the play goes on. At first a gently chiding presence, she gradually insinuates an unforgettable, heartrending portrait of a girl who thinks herself too plain to be loved and too unimportant to deserve happiness. Sarah Grace Wilson’s approach to Yelena has a similar way of slowly building on itself. When she enters, you’re struck first by her passive beauty but then almost immediately by her slightly boorish way of speaking and carrying herself, but she gives a lively and moving portrayal of someone often fed up with being an object of desire but who can’t quite be bothered to do anything else with her life.
As remarkably solid as the production is overall, it sometimes feels as if there’s a hole at its center. A fine comic actor, Dan Hiatt makes a likeable Vanya, and easily nails the ridiculous aspect of the character’s carrying on. It’s the other side of him that feels lacking. Vanya is deeply, desperately depressed, and while that’s represented when Hiatt does things like crawling under the table, his animated, floppy-limbed physicality makes it seem somehow abstract and clownish. We hear him say how disappointed he is in life, but don’t necessarily feel his pain.
It’s a delicate balance, and one that’s often tipped the other way, leading to dreary productions of unrelenting gloom in which Chekhov’s humor is treated like the indulgent smile someone might give you so that you’ll leave and give her an opportunity to hang herself. It’s a far, far better thing that’s done with this delightful production than is usually done with what turns out to be an often uproarious, if melancholy, comedy.