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UNCLE VANYA Written by: Anton Chekhov (Translation by Curt Columbus)
by Rick Reed
2001-06-27

This article shared 2155 times since Wed Jun 27, 2001
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At the end of Uncle Vanya, Sonya, the beleaguered young daughter at the play's center, asks her uncle, "What can you do? You just have to live." With these simple words, the character encapsulates the boredom and lack of hope that comprises most of the character's lives in one of Chekhov's darker and more disturbing explorations of the human psyche. Although Steppenwolf, in its press materials, bills Uncle Vanya as a comedy or "a comic drama about summer love," it is anything but either of those things. Uncle Vanya is about a group of people trapped in lives that are going nowhere, and the hunger for love and change that permeates their dreary, albeit comfortable, circumstances. There is comedy, but it is of the black variety and it arises from the character's despair, as when Uncle Vanya ( Austin Pendleton, in a stellar, restrained performance ) responds to an innocent comment about the summer day with: "Nice weather—especially if you feel like hanging yourself."

Like so many of Chekhov's works, Uncle Vanya is about a genteel, pre-Revolution Russian family, who are just steps away from poverty but clinging to the traditions and mindsets of better years just the same. The not altogether happy, but settled, landscape is unsettled by the arrival of one of the family elders, a retired professor and his beautiful young wife ( who would today be referred to as a "trophy" ) , who sets in motion all kinds of petty jealousies and longings. Curt Columbus's excellent, deft translation retains the dark comedy and flavor of Chekhov, while making it easily accessible to modern audiences. In spite of its dusky contemplation of the human condition, this Uncle Vanya is enormously entertaining, and a triumph for the Steppenwolf studio.

What really makes this Uncle Vanya work are its performances ( and the inspired and sympathetic work of director Sheldon Pantinkin ) , which are intricate and delicately nuanced, right down to even the smallest roles. The opening performance had a slight glitch in that the pivotal role of Chekhov's young daughter, Sonya, who is just beginning to come into conflict with the depressing reality of what her life might be, had to be played by an understudy, Heather Anne Prete. If Ms. Prete's on-the-fly performance is any indication of what she might do when she has more time to prepare, we have much to look forward to. Her performance went beyond adequate and she managed to create a full-blooded character, one for whom we could care about more deeply than anyone else in the play. Steppenwolf veteran Rondi Reed, as Marina ( the family Nanny ) takes a small part and breathes humorous, cantankerous life into it. When an actor dropping a ball of yarn at the end of the play can make a gesture mean so much, you know you're in the presence of real talent. The remainder of the cast acquitted themselves with amazing ability; watching performers like this is reason enough to make sure you buy tickets to Uncle Vanya.

But there's more—Joseph Wade's evocative, on-target set design, Jaymi Lee Smith's moody lighting, and the always inspired sound work of Joe Cerqua make this classic a modern winner.


This article shared 2155 times since Wed Jun 27, 2001
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