Anton Chekhov is universally recognized as a great playwright but also a very slippery one. He used to be avoided because his plays lacked the exciting plots that producers were looking for. The intricate canvas on which he painted his view of the world required brilliant directing and
subtle acting to do justice to his plays. The Russian of his plays seemed awkward and directors, as far as I can judge, have given up on literal translations and have opted for “versions” of the plays, some by prominent playwrights.
Crow’s Theatre of Toronto gives us an outstanding production of Uncle Vanya in a new version by Lisa Repo-Martell, directed by Chris Abraham. The plot sounds prosaic, but it is nothing of the kind in the hands of Chekhov and especially in Abraham’s delicate handling. We are on a Russian estate maintained by Vanya (Tom Rooney) and his niece Sonya (Bahia Watson). The estate is “owned” by Professor Alexandre (Eric Peterson) but in fact it was bequeathed to his first wife by her late father. Vanya’s mother Maria (dtaborah johnson), a minor character in the play, also lives there. Sonya is the Professor’s daughter by his late, first wife. Dr. Astrov (Ali Kazmi) is a regular visitor to the estate and a key character in the play. We also have “Waffles” (Amand Rajaram), an impoverished landowner living on the estate and the old nurse Marina (Carolyn Fe).
The catalyst for the action is the arrival of the Professor with his beautiful, young wife Yelena (Shannon Taylor). They lived in the city, but the retired Professor returns to his estate with a view to selling it and and thus being able to afford life in the city with the money. This summary tells you almost nothing about the play and the production.
Chekhov presents a group of people and by extension a society and perhaps even humanity in a state of torpor, morass, despair, uselessness, and depression. This applies to most of the characters and to the collective condition of the residents of the estate. Uncle Vanya at 51 is feeling old and useless. He manages the estate for the Professor and now is at risk of being tossed out with nothing to live on. He is attracted to Yelena to no effect, and he is a man at the end of his rope. He attempts suicide and tries to shoot the Professor but is unsuccessful even at that. Rooney, disheveled, wanders around and gives a superb performance reaching emotional highs and lows.
Dr. Astrov is an overworked physician with a love of forestry but in middle age he has become disillusioned. He used to look across a forest and see light but even that has disappeared. He thinks he has fallen in love with the beautiful Yelena, and he does kiss her but the affair gets nowhere. He drinks vodka to excess as does Vanya to find an oasis in his life but in the end, there is nothing. Kazmi is a passionate Astrov in a dismal emotional state and he does an outstanding job
The Professor is revealed as an ineffectual and fraudulent scholar who managed to live on the money from his first wife’s estate. He is an ineffectual idiot, his wife Yelena of high social standing from St. Petersburgh, hates her husband and the estate. Taylor provides statuesque beauty and haughty demeanor in an outstanding performance.
Watson’s Sonya is a pathetic woman, too plain to be noticed by Astrov whom she loves. She tries desperately to be optimistic and decides that the drudge work on the estate is acceptable or better
than nothing and she puts on a brave and positive face to life.
The servant Marina gave some examples of stoic forbearance. She works and continues with life be it in quiet acceptance or desperation, but we have no way of knowing it. Waffles, the impecunious former landowner gives the best example of putting up with what you have. His wife left him the day after their marriage, and he lost everything supporting her and her children and has not lost his optimism. Rajaram with his long hair, unshaven face ang rags could pass for a homeless person.
Chekhov set the play in the garden, the dining room, the drawing room, and Vanya’s room. Set co-designers Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan, set the play in a large, ramshackle room that works perfectly. My only complaint is there is a piano and a pantry placed in opposite corners at one end of the theatre. Both are almost invisible to about one-quarter of the audience in the theatre-in-the-round arrangement of Crow’s.
The remarkable success of the production belongs to the prodigious knowledge and astonishing theatrical imagination of director Abraham. He clearly knows his Chekhov and gives a fine-tuned production that lets us see the characters in their world. There is humour and dramatic scenes of drunkenness and high drama. But in the end, we are left with a crucial impression of the people, the society, and the world of the play. That is Chekhov’s intricate canvas that Chris Abraham unveils for us.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in an adaptation by Lisa Repo-Martell continues until October 2, 2022 at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/