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Lantern Theater’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ (2nd review)BY: Robert Zaller 11.09.2010
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is, like his other works on turn-of-the-20th-Century Russia, a comedy that breaks the heart. It’s well served in the Lantern Theater’s current production.
Uncle Vanya. By Anton Chekhov; directed by Kathryn MacMillan. Lantern Theater Company production through November 21, 2010 at St. Stephen’s Theatre, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.
The landed gentry, awaiting extinctionROBERT ZALLER
Anton Chekhov’s final four plays— The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard— are essentially variations on a single theme with a common cast of characters. The theme is the existential sorrow of life against the background of a decaying landlord class, and the characters include rising capitalist exploiters, trapped middlemen, vagrant artists and professionals, and women, aging or young, as immured in their social roles as fossils in amber.
Soviet Marxist criticism made Chekhov a heroic precursor of the socialist revolution, although he never depicted an actual revolutionary (as the much-elder Dostoevsky had done in The Possessed), and utopias of any kind were as alien to Chekhov as the hope of immortality was to a man who knew he would never reach 50.
To be sure, Chekhov’s more wistful characters speak continually of a perfected human future in which life is golden and the travails of their own age a tragic memory. The more Chekhov’s characters speak of it, however the more futile the conception becomes.
To be sure, the world he describes is changing, and that change is the very subject of Chekhov’s theater— the dynamic that drives its action. But the change is all for the worse, and the new men who represent it are moral monsters capable only of destruction, consuming not only hope and labor but also the earth itself.
The Marxists, then, were perfectly correct to see in Chekhov a profound critic of the capitalist order whose genius was to backlight it not against its foes but its victims. From our postrevolutionary vantage, however, he emerges after a century as ruefully wiser than his commentators. The brave new world of Soviet communism— not socialism at all, but a brutal state capitalism efficient only in the arts of repression— has come and gone, and today the capitalist predators of Chekhov’s own age are more firmly entrenched than ever, their capacity for mischief multiplied manyfold, and the earth itself their final prey.
Focus on the doctor
In Uncle Vanya, the key character is the youngish country doctor, Astrov. In dramatic terms, he is the focus of interest for the play’s two chief female characters, young Sonya and her attractive stepmother Yelena. In ideological ones, he is a proto-environmentalist who despairingly plants trees even as the district’s forests are being chopped down, and he performs what service he can as its lone physician.
Astrov is a good man as far as he goes, which is perhaps as far as an ordinary man of his class and time can. He feels guilt and a kind of grief for the injured workman who dies in his hands, but he has no sympathy for the peasants who surround him, whom he cannot see as truly human. He dotes on Yelena, but ignores the devoted Sonya. Unlike the idealistic Sonya and her more emotionally exposed uncle, Vanya, Astrov holds no hope for the future, but grimly tracks the decline of the present. This embitters him and, blinding him to the virtues of Sonya, leads him to seek a conventional affair with the shallow Yelena.
Vanya himself, who acts as a steward for the estate on which his family lives, is a deeper character but one who, equally incapable of transcending his circumstances, carries himself as a clown. He too is drawn to Yelena— is in fact genuinely in love with her— but knows his passion to be hopeless and so mocks his own suffering.
Vanya’s family relationship with Yelena of course makes for an insuperable obstacle, but the more fundamental problem lies in his deeper capacity for feeling— a feeling Yelena can’t reciprocate. She is tempted by Astrov, who is temperamentally closer to her, and who is prepared to deal with her as a more cold-blooded erotic transaction. Yelena, though, is bound by her marriage to the aged academic, Serebryakov, who behind his litany of health complaints is still the tyrant who rules the household. Yelena depends upon him for status and security; the prospect of being a country doctor’s wife— all that Astrov can offer, beyond a simple adulterous affair— is not for a moment to be entertained.
Declarations of boredom
The first two acts, apart from setting out the emotional relationships among the principal characters, consist largely of declarations of boredom. This is partly the result of the characters’ stymied erotic interests, but boredom is the climate of Chekhov’s mature plays in general, and in a way the key to them.
On one level, it’s an expression of social decay— Chekhov’s characters sense the historical supercession of their gentry class, and they experience “boredom” as the sense of their obsolescence and looming extinction. But their boredom contains an existential dimension too— a sense of the futility of human experience as such, concretized in the agonizing emotional stalemates Chekhov concocts for them.
Life can be freer and more just, yes, unlikely as that is to happen; but in the end it cannot be happier. When Sonya and Vanya rhapsodize over the future, as other Chekhov characters do, they imagine a world that, in their hearts, they know can’t exist.
The only character who doesn’t experience boredom, apart from the peasant Nanny and the hanger-on Telegin, is Serebryakov. Boredom is humanity itself, at least at a certain level of refinement, and only Chekhov’s villains are immune to it. It’s true that Serebryakov complains of it too, but what he means is not that he lacks fulfilling relationships or a sense of useful purpose, but simply that his ego, which blots out the world, lacks scope and nourishment in the straitened society of the country.
Serebryakov has lived a comfortable urban life, but with retirement he is only able to afford the country. He plans to return to the city by selling the family estate and putting the money in treasury bills, which, as he explains, will earn more per annum more than the estate does. He has thought of selling off the forests for lumber— so much for Astrov’s saplings— but that isn’t adequate to his needs. Only the estate itself will fetch enough to restore him to the style to which he has been accustomed— and, it goes without saying, considers himself entitled. Yelena will live with Serebryakov, of course. The fate of the rest of the household itself is a detail that hasn’t yet occurred to him.
Refuge in the afterlife
Two small details obstruct his plan. First, Serebryakov doesn’t own the estate, which has been given to Sonya as her dowry portion. Second, kindly Vanya, who has managed the estate for 25 years and who has renounced his share in it for the sake of his niece, goes berserk and fires off a gun. Serebryakov departs with Yelena, which also means the end of Astrov’s company, and Vanya and Sonya are left to plod on emptily. Only the prospect of an afterlife— the refuge of the peasants themselves— can console them, she says.
But their days, one suspects, are more closely numbered than that. If not Serebryakov, some other schemer will soon turn up.
Uncle Vanya is the only one of Chekhov’s plays to be named after one of its characters, and Vanya isn’t an obvious protagonist: Astrov is more intellectually developed, and Sonya possesses more native goodness. Even Vanya’s single act of assertion ends up a humiliating farce; no one thinks of bringing charges against him— dear, poor Vanya!— and Serebryakov insists on a reconciliation scene. Perhaps it is Vanya’s very haplessness that makes him the center of the play and, in a sense, of Chekhov’s universe. In Chekhov, action never liberates but only more deeply ensnares.
A ticklish role
Of course, the villains often get their way, but that’s of no moral significance; “liberation” is a category that can’t be applied to them, fully ensnared in the world’s ways as they are from the beginning.
Vanya is, though, a very ticklish role to play. In the Lantern Theater’s current production, directed by Kathryn MacMillan, Peter DeLaurier takes the role a bit over the top, but with generally convincing results. Vanya is the man of the family without the wealth or status that should go with it, and when Serebryakov and Yelena show up to challenge him, each in a different way, he seeks vainly to regain his balance.
The rest of the cast is able, though I found David Blatt’s Telegin a bit off-key, and Ann Gundersheimer’s Nanny— she is in many ways both the most consoling and the most terrifying figure in the play— not quite nuanced. The power couple Serebryakov (David Howey) and Yelena (Sarah Sanford) are both particularly fine, and Melissa Lynch does very well by Sonya’s final, heartbreaking speech.
Charlie DelMarcelle’s Astrov is appropriately astringent as a man uncomfortably straddling two worlds. Ensemble work is everything in Chekhov, and this production, caveats noted, is well up to the mark. Thom Weaver’s lighting adds some pointed effects. Mike Poulton’s idiomatic translation works, too, although I was brought up a little short when Astrov urges Vanya to “give it a rest.”
Good Chekhov doesn’t come along every day. The Lantern’s production is well worth a visit.♦
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