Stage Door Review

Uncle Vanya

Monday, September 19, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell, directed by Chris Abraham

Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

August 25-October 2, 2022

“The country – where good intentions go to die”

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya directed by Chris Abraham is currently playing at Streetcar Crowsnest. It may be the best production of Uncle Vanya you will ever see. Of the many productions of the play that I’ve seen over the years, three have stood out for excellence. One is that directed by Jackie Maxwell at the Shaw Festival in 2016. Another is that directed by László Marton for Soulpepper in 2001. The third is that directed by Ian Prinsloo at the Shaw Festival in 1999. The current production pips these three for three reasons. First is Liisa Repo-Martell’s clear, unforced adaptation. Second is the outstanding set by Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan that makes the play an immersive experience. Third is Abraham’s insightful, finely nuanced that draws multilayered performances from all the main actors.

For those who need a refresher on the story, the action of play takes place on the Serebryakovs’ family estate in the country. The family matriarch, although she rarely appears, is Maria Voynitskaya (dtaborah johnson), who is the mother of Ivan Petrovich, the titular “Uncle Vanya” (Tom Rooney), and of Vanya’s now deceased sister Vera. Vanya’s sister married an up-and-coming university student, now a retired professor, Alexandre Serebryakov (Eric Peterson). By him Vanya’s sister gave birth to Sonya (Bahia Watson). Once Sonya became older, Vanya and Sonya, convinced that Alexandre would be a great thinker, gave up their own interests to run the estate to pay for Alexandre’s education and then for his lifestyle as a professor in the city.

What has caused a change is that Alexandre has not proved to be the remarkable intellect everyone thought he would be, making Vanya and Sonya’s sacrifice seems useless. Then Alexandre remarried. His new, beautiful, much younger wife is Yelena (Shannon Taylor). Alexandre has decided that they two will retire to the family estate in the country. Yelena is totally unaccustomed to rural life, but her presence has stirred passion both in Vanya and in the dashing local physician and frequent house guest Dr. Astrov (Ali Kazmi). Meanwhile, Sonya has fallen in love with Astrov but is too shy to tell him so. The crisis of the play is that Alexandre wants to sell the estate (which in fact belongs to Sonya) and put the money in bonds so that its profits will be greater. He has given no thought as to where Maria, Vanya or Sonya would live.

Liisa Repo-Martell has a long experience with Uncle Vanya. She played Sonia in Soulpepper’s 2001 production opposite Diego Matamoros’ Vanya. Now she is the adaptor and Assistant Director for Abraham’s production and from September 15-17 also plays Sonya. Repo-Martell has made Chekhov’s language modern and idiomatic, but, unlike too many adaptors, she has not included any contemporary phrases that would link the play to the 21st century. The result is admirably clear, natural and fresh. It still possesses the flights of poetry that periodically seize the characters. It is especially notable that Repo-Martell has characters repeat certain key phrases in the play with exactly the same words. Thus, her adaptation makes more obvious that characters other than Vanya think “I have wasted my life” or “What is the use of living?” More than other adaptations this makes us see that the malaise Vanya suffers from is also shared by Astrov, Yelena and even Alexandre.

As the summary above should demonstrate, Uncle Vanya is not about action but about the increasing tensions of people living together and how old resentments eventually come to the surface and boil over. This requires extremely nuanced acting and I have found that play has the most impact when the audience is as close as it can be to the actors. This was certainly the case in the Shaw Festival productions at the Court House Theatre in 1999 and 2016, and it is true of the present production.

The Crow’s Theatre production is in the round. Julie Fox and Joshua Quinlan have designed a large square set representing a general gathering room for work, relaxation, eating and drinking to replace the three sets Chekhov calls for. The audience sits in rows, two to five deep, around the perimeter of this square except for its four corners. At each of these corners is a small square area, each representing a theme discussed in the play. The northeast corner is the entrance to the house through a garden. The southeast corner is the source of food and especially of drink. In the southwest corner is a piano and other musical instruments. And in the  northwest corner are icons, a Bible and the entrance to Alexandre’s study. Thus, the four alcoves represent the four means that the characters use to cure boredom or numb pain – nature, drink, music and literature or religion.

The playing areas are all decorated in late 19th-century style giving the room a generally ramshackle appearance. Fox and Quinaln, however, have gone beyond strict realism. Multiple Persian and Turkish carpets lay on a broad-planked wooden floor. There is dirt around the edges of this flooring but, more alarmingly, parts of planks near the middle of the room are missing and dirt is showing. There is a washtub on the floor, clearly there to collect any water that leaks through the roof when it rains. We seen vines through the translucent windows of the western wall but some have managed to creep into the room near the ceiling. Fox and Quinal suggest a ceiling with three massive square arches in modern style. They don’t fit in with a typical wooden dacha, but when Vanya says he feels like he’s in a mausoleum, their meaning is chillingly clear.

Chris Abraham has directed the play as if it were a four-movement octet. Themes are introduced and developed. Counter-themes appear and intertwine. Tension mounts throughout the first two movements and come to one climax at the end of the second movement and rise to a greater climax during the third movement. The fourth movement serves as a resolution of the tonal conflict that rose to such a height in the third movement.

Within this compelling overall pattern, Abraham has drawn performances of exquisite detail from all the principal characters. As Vanya, Tom Rooney gives one of his best-ever performances. Rooney shows emotions of all kinds roiling inside Vanya – veering from self-loathing to hatred of Alexandre and disgust with Maria, avuncular love for Sonya, romantic love for Yelena, comradeship with Astrov and the impoverished “Waffles” (Anand Rajaram). All these emotions are linked to Vanya’s existential questioning of what his purpose is in life or, indeed, what anyone’s purpose is.

What is so thrilling is how Rooney conveys multiple emotions at the same time such as his own self-abasement undercutting his declarations of love for Yelena. Vanya may think he is a useless person, but his passionate attack on Alexandre for neglecting all that he and Sonya have done for him rises to a level of heroism no other character is capable of. Vanya immediately ruins this impression when he pursues Alexandre with a pistol, but at least Rooney shows us what kind of greatness Vanya could achieve if he had not spent most of his life in useless activity and self-pity.

I happened to see a performance when Liisa Repo-Martell took over Bahia Watson’s role as Sonya. Repo-Martell was so impressive as Sonya for Soulpepper in 2001, it was a delight to see that her already keen understanding of the role has deepened even further. Other than the servant and former children’s nurse Marina (Carolyn Fe), Sonya is the only character who is preoccupied with useful work at the estate.

But, like Vanya, Sonya has a romantic side that, unlike Vanya, she keeps tightly repressed. When Astrov shows any kindness toward Sonya, she blooms with pleasure. Should he shake her hand she doesn’t want to let go. We see all this and Repo-Martell lets us know exactly what Sonya is thinking at the time even when she notices that Astrov views his gestures towards her as meaningless. Repo-Martell has a wonderful way of showing how joy and disappointment combat each other, and how Sonya wants joy to win but secretly knows that it is an illusion.

Several times she laughs when we think she might cry and vice versa because Repo-Martell shows us that Sonya can be overjoyed and think herself a fool at the same time. Repo-Martell speaks Sonya’s great final speech consoling herself and Vanya for the lack of pleasure they will experience in this life as if Sonya has convinced herself of its truth while she knows that Vanya believes in the goodness of her desire to console even if no words ever will console him.

The character with the greatest outward vitality is Dr. Astrov. Ali Kazmi makes him a charismatic figure. It’s no wonder that he attracts both Sonya and Yelena. He, though this is 1898, is concerned about how human activity is ruining the environment and expresses his thoughts in fervent terms. Abraham’s production presents the paradox that while man is ruining nature by building over good farmland, nature seems to be reclaiming the Serebryakovs’ home.

Yet, other than trying to stem the tide of ecological destruction, Astrov, like Vanya and Yelena, feels his talents are buried in the country. Recently two cares have drive him to drink even more than usual, in fact to the point of ineffectuality. One is the fact that he haunted by the death of a patient he thinks he should have been able to save. The other his hopeless love for Yelena. Dashing as Astrov is compared to the bedraggled Vanya, Astrov seems even more committed to his self-destruction than Vanya. Kazmi is excellent at projecting an outward façade of vitality and optimism, but he simultaneously shows that that much of Astrov’s outward energy comes from a desire to rid himself of the guilt and hopelessness that consume him.

As the couple whose presence has disturbed all order on the estate, Eric Peterson and Shannon Taylor have been very well cast as Alexandre and Yelena. Peterson is a far older Alexandre and any I have seen before, but that only makes people’s comments about the scandal of his marrying so young a wife more pertinent. Taylor is particularly graceful and stylish, a point emphasized in Ming Wong’s costumes for her. But this only shows us at a glance that Yelena is a city woman who will never fit into the country and that that alone makes Vanya’s and Astrov’s suits to her impossible. When Sonya suggests that Yelena do something useful with her time, Taylor has Yelena regard her as if Yelena has no clue what Sonya was speaking of. Taylor portrays Yelena as fully aware of her beauty but shallow and malicious.

Peterson makes Alexandre the most vile Alexandre I have seen. This Alexandre complains of numerous aches and pains as if he is longing for Maria and Marina to baby him as they always do. His constant jealousy of Yelena makes him look like a fool. We wonder how deeply he deceived himself that a woman so young really could love him. His mean-spiritedness is frightening since we don’t know how he might lash out at all those, including Yelena, who he thinks despise him. Peterson makes Alexandre’s announcement that he will sell the estate so terrible because he does it so matter-of-factly. His goal in selling is purely egocentric yet he is completely oblivious to that fact. Peterson shows Alexandre as both cowardly and presumptuous in trying to defend the decision.

Three minor characters put the main characters into perspective. Anand Rajaram plays Telegin, know as Waffles, as a truly decrepit person. Unrelated to the family he is an impoverished landowner who lives on the estate as a dependent. The irony is that Alexandre is a dependant who has status in the household whereas Waffles has none. Rajaram plays Waffles as almost a living ghost, a physical embodiment of what Vanya fears he may become. Rajaram shows conflict even within this character where embarrassment of what he has come to battles with the knowledge that he has no other choice in life.

Marina, the family’s old nurse and housekeeper, and Maria, Vanya’s mother and Alexandre’s biggest fan, represent complete opposites. As Carolyn Fe plays her, Marina is only one, other than Sonya, who we see constantly at work. Marina continues to nurse those around her as if they were still children, which, indeed is how they act, but she does so with the utmost selflessness.

Maria, on the hand, is completely idle. In dtaborah johnson’s portrayal, Maria is a totally self-centred person and her continuing belief that Alexandre is a great man, despite all the evidence to the contrary, shows that she has no insight neither into Alexandre, nor herself, nor anyone else in the family. Alexandre’s decision to sell the estate produces no revelation to her of his true nature but only a fact that she is unable to process.

The combination of such a clear adaptation, such an imaginative, immersive set, such finely nuanced direction and such detailed acting makes this Uncle Vanya an unmissable experience. All the elements of great theatre-making have aligned in this production of the play in a way that may never occur again. Of all the classic plays I’ve seen this summer, this is the production I would bring foreign guests to see to prove that a Canadian theatre can stage the classics just as well as the finest theatre anywhere.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Tom Rooney as Uncle Vanya; Anand Rajaram as Waffles, Eric Peterson as Alexandre, Bahia Watson as Sonya, Tom Rooney as Uncle Vanya, dtaborah johnson as Maria, Shannon Taylor as Yelena and Carolyn Fe as Marina; Tom Rooney as Uncle Vanya, Anand Rajaram as Waffles and Ali Kazmi as Dr. Astrov; Eric Peterson as Alexandre and Shannon Taylor as Yelena. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.crowstheatre.com.