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Chekhov at the Goodman Theater Review- Annie Baker adapts "Uncle Vanya"

By Debra Davy

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The Goodman Theatre is currently staging Annie Baker’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” through March 19th.  Starring a fine cast of actors- David Darlow, Kristen Bush, Caroline Neff, Tim Hopper, Marton Csokas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Mary Ann Thebus, Larry Neumann, Jr., and Alzan Pelesic- it’s tautly directed by Robert Falls.  A beautiful set, thanks to Todd Rosenthal, with fabulously authentic period costumes by Ana Kuzmanic,   the whole is splendidly evocative of down-at-the-heels wealth. Through it’s open doors, lush foliage beckons invitingly; sounds of falling rain and birds chirping – courtesy of Richard Woodbury- and indoor-outdoor shifting light and shadows by Keith Parham complete the ambience.

Set design by Todd Rosenthal for the Chicago premiere of Annie Baker's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" directed by Robert Falls

It is the country estate- now a farm- of Alexander Serebryakov’s late wife, run by his daughter, Sonya and his stepson, Vanya, for his benefit. Vanya's aged parents and old nanny also live there, with a couple of man- servants. The professor, an intellectual snob and fraud is remarried to the lovely and much-younger Yelena; as the play opens, they’ve all been living there together. A long-time family friend, Dr. Astrov, is visiting. Vanya and Dr. Astrov, an environmental enthusiast, both love Yelena to distraction. Yelena and Sonya both adore the Doctor. Vanya hates the professor.

David Darlow as Serbryakov and Kristen Bush as Yelena

For the rest, we have the eternal Russian mid-19th century obsession with the meaninglessness of life, the certainty of the grave, the endless need to save face, the impetus to use romantic sexuality to fight ennui. Chekhov’s unerring ability to drive to the heart of longing and despair comes to the fore. His language is elegantly simplified here through Baker’s adaptation, based upon a literal translation from the original Russian by Margarita Shalina. Except for a few strange language choices, like the use of the word “creep” as a self-descriptive term, the European-influenced Russian phrases depicting life’s central strivings and lost hopes are well expressed.

Tim Hopper as Uncle Vanya

The best-drawn character is certainly Nanny, played by Mary Ann Thebus, whose directness of bearing and approach- not to mention her ability to feel human emotions untainted by despair- are a refreshing side-note if not antidote to the pervasive feelings of boredom everybody else describes. Her solution to many a worldly problem is to offer a bottle of vodka, and the only festive scene is when the men sing and dance drunk. The younger women try to foil this behavior, more’s the pity, and to little avail.

Caroline Neff as Sonya and Tim Hopper as Vanya

This is a long play at 2 hours and 40 minutes, but it wouldn’t be possible to cut it down without ruining the author's intentions. The personalities are well thought out and well developed. David Darlow is fiendishly unattractive as the self-absorbed phony intellectual Serebryakov. Kristen Bush is incandescent as his fully self-aware wife, Yelena. Caroline Neff gives us a Sonya full of sensual emotion tempered by duty. Tim Hopper displays the ultimate Vanya- his enormous Russian soul steeped in desire and self-recrimination, often leavened by droll humor- drives the play. Marton Tsokas’ titanic Astrov is a complex and many-layered man.

Tim Hopper as Vanya and Marton Csokas as Astrov

 While the characters emote and declaim, little seems resolved. Indeed, on the surface it seems that nothing really happens, but that is not it at all. The professor tries to enforce a disastrous change and is resisted, at the point of murder. A suicide is also thwarted, as is passion. Life is allowed to go on as before- a way of living bemoaned as intolerable is yet fought for and upheld; friendships are retained, a marriage is saved.

Caroline Neff as Sonya and Kristen Bush as Yelena

These characters’ day-to-day existence and relationships are indeed meaningfully felt and lived, despite their verbal complaints to the contrary. And that is the point, very subtly delivered. The play is splendidly performed and is highly recommended.

David Darlow, Kristen Bush, Tim Hopper, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Larry Neumann, Jr., Caroline Neff and Mary Ann Thebes in "Uncle Vanya"


 For information and tickets to all the excellent productions at The Goodman Theatre, go to the Goodman Theatre website



All photos courtesy of Liz Lauren



Published on Feb 28, 2017

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