Germinal Stage reveals the comic layers in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya is a challenge for any contemporary director, since most audience members won't know what to make of all those talky Russians freely airing their deepest desires and despairs, periodically insulting each other, occasionally bursting through with declarations of unrequited love — and all this without the upbeat, therapeutic gloss we Americans like to place on emotion. And how does an actor portray someone who says his work is meaningless, his life bleak and that he no longer cares for anyone? Should he be presented as an annoying whiner, or a deep-thinking observer of the human condition?

Add to these hurdles the fact that we don't really understand Anton Chekhov's times. For most of us, our fondness for nature and wilderness is tempered by the knowledge that the nearest pizza slice is only a car ride away — a perspective that has no connection with the brutal isolation of rural Russia in the late nineteenth century, with its huge roadless tracts of land, harsh winters and the endless grinding work required of inhabitants if they wanted simply to stay warm, dry and fed.

Like most of Chekhov's dramas, Uncle Vanya has no straightforward plotline and little overt action: just talk, humans bumping up against each other and small psychological revelations. Although Chekhov called his plays comedies, this isn't a hint that many directors have taken. I've caught occasional humorous moments in Chekhov productions, but usually the tone is of subdued and baffled tragedy. But now Ed Baierlein has produced the first comic Vanya I've ever seen in my life, and while a few scenes come dangerously close to farcical, they never topple over the edge; overall, the approach works.

At Vanya's house, the dreary daily tasks are done by his niece Sonya and the old nurse, Marina, while Vanya himself keeps track of the financial records. The household rhythms are disrupted by the arrival of Vanya's self-important, art professor brother (and Sonya's father), Alexandr, and Alexandr's beautiful and much younger wife, Yelena. Vanya is in love with Yelena, who's tired of her hypochondriacal husband, and so is the good doctor, Astrov — for whom Sonya has been yearning for many years. Astrov, who visits the family periodically, is the perennial outsider; although he's come to believe that all his healing work is useless — one of his patients died under chloroform — he's passionate about saving his country's endangered forests. Many critics believe this figure comes closest to representing the author himself.

The cast in this Germinal Stage production makes these people both sad and silly, saving them from absolute silliness with rueful self-awareness and a kind of bitter humor. Sallie Diamond's Marina is a tired, plodding old peasant, and Lisa Mumpton's Yelena as matter-of-fact and life-weary as she is charming. Eric Victor is a rather genial Vanya — at least until all his defenses collapse. In an often very funny performance, Baierlein himself limns whiny old Alexandr with pinpoint accuracy. Terry Burnsed delivers another very strong portrayal as Astrov, who is often played as a noble sort, someone whose head is so far in the clouds that he never notices his impact on poor Sonya; Burnsed's version, however, is peevish, small-souled and dry-palmed. The scene in which Sonya indirectly declares her love is usually played as if Astrov simply doesn't get what she's saying — but this Astrov does, softening only a fraction before disposing of her with cursory kindness. So much of the meaning of this play keys on Sonya, a young woman rapidly aging in enforced isolation, plain but full of longing, and Elgin Kelley gives a brilliantly understated and deeply moving performance in the role.

Germinal uses a different translation from the one I'm used to, and much of the language is contemporary, sometimes almost jarringly so, as when Sonya comforts a grieving Vanya with the idea of a "vacation" after death rather than the more usual "rest." (The program doesn't list a translator, but does credit Baierlein himself with the adaptation.) These changes make the dialogue much, much funnier — somehow, without destroying the play's integrity or the sadness at its core. Only Baierlein could combine a genuine respect for the text with a willingness to tweak its nose in this way, and the result is a strong reminder of why this thirty-year-old company remains a formidable theatrical force.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman