15 December 2002: Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by  János Szász. (Opened 30 November)

The opening production of the 2002-03 season, the first under the new troika of directors: Robert Woodruff, Artistic Director; Robert J. Orchard, Executive Director; and Gideon Lester, Associate Artistic Director.

Szász, a Hungarian, has brought a point of view all his own to this play, an irreverent, no-holds-barred engagement with what he evidently sees as the robust common humanity underlying the familiar sense of profound autonomy and despair that we have always found to be Chekhov’s familiar stock in trade, in his major plays and in the chiefest of their predecessors, Ivanov. As in that play, there is a Hamlet figure in each of the plays that follow. In this play it is of course the title character, who shares his gloomy predecessor’s name —Ivan — familiarized to Vanya. Unlike many productions of this play, the title character does not stand in the limelight. Instead, Szász has wrought a vivacious ensemble, trading any sense of pervasive ennui for a highly physical production in which much physical touching occurs — and much emotive vitality is in evidence. (The extended growling and barking contest indulged in by Astrov and Vanya, in which their open mouths are a scant inch away from each other, seems not at all out of place.) Everything in this production is basic, elemental, animalistic, even to the extent of Astrov, in the last act, groping Yelena’s genitals and breasts.

I actually liked this production a lot, except for the very end. Vanya, alone on stage after the Professor and Yelena have departed and the rest of the characters have gone to see them off, is moved to attempt suicide with the rope that has been used to tie the various account and record books into a bundle. The books lie strewn on the floor, as Vanya mounts a chair, ties one end of the rope to the chandelier, makes a noose in the other end and tightens it around his neck, and then, losing courage to kick the chair out from under him, unties the rope. (There is no hint of this, as I recall, in the script.) The others then come back, Vanya and Sonya sit together at the downstage table and begin to do the accounts.

In still another gesture of despair, Vanya does some rapid-fire business with a rubber stamp, stamping pages innumerable times until he runs out of energy and is quieted by Sonya. So far, so good. But then Marina enters with a huge pot, followed by Waffles and various other hangers-on. They gather in a circle downstage of the table. The pot is opened and its smell savored: it is dumplings, which they all begin to devour. This picks up on Waffles’s earlier comment that it has been ages since they had dumplings. As this goes on, the most soulful, ringing Russian music, with mandolins and balalaikas galore, swept over us. My companion said afterwards, “We might as well have had Laura’s theme.” Suddenly I had a glimpse of a true Hollywood ending, the camera panning away from a close shot of the Professor and Yelena to a long shot of some muddy, rut-filled Russian country road, and then a cut to another dumpling going down the hatch.

This was not, I think, what Chekhov had in mind for the ending of the play. It seemed in fact a doubly false note, false to Chekhov’s play and false even to what Szász did with it up until that last sequence. What he did was to impose an unremittingly wretched, shabby setting on a group of characters whose great vitality has been almost entirely suppressed by the appalling circumstances in which they live. The principal fixture on this large thrust stage was a very long bar, lighted by a string of overhead fluorescent lights complemented by a similar, shorter string behind the counter, a bar for which no explanation is given, open at all hours. There is no indication of setting in the program. We can infer that Vanya and Sonya operate this bar as an add-on to the country estate they manage, for the sake of a little extra income. But no one seems to patronize it except Astrov and Vanya — who would, together, seem to keep it in business were it not for the fact that no money ever changes hands. Once accepted and gotten used to, however, the bar simply becomes part of the awful, dreadful circumstances in which these poor people eke out their existence.

The acting is uniformly fine, evidently the product of a clear-eyed and strong-minded director. The Astrov, Arliss Howard, was quite wonderful as the guilt-ridden idealist country doctor who has recently lost a patient on the operating table and is drinking himself into oblivion, even while he neglects his practice and stays around the estate because of his attraction to Yelena, the old professor’s young wife, who is colossally bored and toys with tempting him while resisting his advances. The actress is Linda Powell, daughter of our current Secretary of State Colin Powell. She may have gotten where she is through some political advantage, but she holds her own well and is quite a competent though not a brilliant actress, with a good mezzo-range voice, a tall, beautiful body, and expressive eyes; somewhat undistinguished in profile but appealing in full face. Vanya is the veteran master actor Thomas Darrah, whose sometimes distracting mannerisms (overly loose, sometimes, and telegraphing the move before he actually makes it) were at a minimum. Szász’s direction of Darrah simultaneously reins him in and opens him up, drawing out his remarkable emotive powers and comparably great vocal prowess. The best actors always seem to give the impression of holding just a little in reserve, even while they open the throttle to full. Szász found plenty of opportunities for Darrah to summon all his powers to express paroxysms of despair, anger, sadness, even while we knew he had more to give. Will Le Bow, another A. R. T. stalwart, gave us an appropriately loathsome Professor Serebriakov, whose best moment comes in the farewell scene. The others are all lined up, at an angle; one by one, beginning with Vanya, he ceremoniously troops the line, saying patronizing things. Astrov is last, and when the Professor gets to him — having surprised Astrov and Yelena in a fairly physical goodbye — he tells Astrov in a seemingly bland way that he admires his mind and his ideas; and then he hurls his un-drunk glass of vodka straight into Astrov’s face. They all then drink their toast, the Professor with an empty glass.

Szász’s direction is like this all the way through: full-throated, as it were, clear, crisp, well articulated, with much business amplifying and illustrating, or sometimes playing directly counter to, the script. The result of the latter ploy is, surprisingly, not to contradict Chekhov’s intentions, but to show that a full, complex humanity lies at the base of these characters and that, consequently, what they say often has an ironic application.

Szász really does appreciate the ironic possibilities in Chekhov’s text and plays them to the full. Except for the ending of the play as the director re-construed it, his directorial intentions largely complement and round out the qualities one finds in Chekhov’s script. This production really holds one’s attention throughout, unremittingly grim though this mise en scène is from first to last. There is bad weather in the souls of these people, drawing the inclemencies of the region and time of year (autumn) into the sordid interior where they live out their nearly-intolerable lives. How such physical and spiritual squalor can be made dramatically interesting I don’t know. I only know that Chekhov’s genius renders it both palpable and intolerable and that Szász’s East European fatalism complements it in surprising and satisfying ways.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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