Sunday, June 17, 2012

THEATER: Uncle Vanya

I don't think Chekhov ever used the term "creep" to describe his characters, and yet that perfect word choice is one of the little joys that makes Annie Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya so enjoyable to watch. The ennui of this piece transcends time, and so under Sam Gold's more than capable direction, their production is transported -- or suspended -- into a carpeted, '70s-style den, with the cast clad in jeans and lumberjack shirts, unencumbered by accents or the exaggerated import that sometimes accompanies the melodramatic moments. Instead, Baker writes from a place of sincere desperation -- an act that has the ironic effect of extending the cruelest moments from the most bubbling: a conversation between new confidants Sonya (Merritt Wever) and her young stepmother, the enchanting Yelena (Maria Dizzia), that is shut down by selfish professor (Peter Friedman), or a drunken moment of abandon shared by the generally dour Astrov (Michael Shannon) and dwindling Vanya (Reed Birney) that is defined by the fact that it will not be remembered. 

As for the one moment of romance that does occur -- after much hemming and hawing -- between Astrov and Yelena: it lasts scarcely for a second; it's a beautiful, tragic reversal on the "true love prevails" trope in which the woman flings herself into the man's arms, and all is well. No, the world of Uncle Vanya vacillates between Sonya's two mindsets: that "Truth, whatever it may be, is never as frightening as uncertainty" and that "Not knowing is better, because then at least you still have hope." Both are crushing, and if there's a single uplifting thought in this bleak play, it the observation Astrov makes: that at least we are all creeps, that the normal mode of human life is a tough one. 

These observations, and more, are made even more accessible thanks to Gold's intimate in-the-round staging, an act that ensures you will be close enough at all times to hear the actual labor of an actor's breathing -- even in something as simple as sleep. It's important that we have these utterly unromanticized moments: Gold doesn't rush over a single action in the play, and along with the naturalistic Baker is absolutely comfortable with silence. These are the true heartbeats: Vanya's confession of suicidal despair is merely the dramatic embellishment on what has been there the whole time. (This leaves the one lingering question regarding Andrew Lieberman's wood-framed set: why are the Russian letters for "Uncle Vanya" prominently set in the wall?)

There's a reason the final sequence takes so long, with characters departing one after another until only Vanya and Sonya are left working endlessly as the lights slowly dim. Sonya has already given her final speech about how unhappy people like them will go on and live, working without reward and enduring until they die so that they might then rest. But let's not rush that: we must wait and endure so that we might then understand what it truly means to live.

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