Uncle Vanya

by Anton Chekhov
English version by Annie Baker
Directed by Sam Gold
Featuring Reed Birney, Michael Shannon, Merrit Wever
Soho Rep with John Adrian Selzer, 46 Walker Street
June 17, 2012 — August 26, 2012 [extended]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 20, 2012

(L-R) Michael Shannon, Reed Birney, Georgia Engle (standing), Merritt Wever. Image by Julieta Cervantes.

Rough hewn timber roof, surprising cast off jumble sale mismatched furniture in the first act (and none in the second), and the floors and seating ledges carpeted in a medium pile that feels soft at first “sit” then shows its limitations. From my middle row, middle tier, short end of the four-sided production in the round, back to the pillow hard against the carpeted step behind me, I muse that I begin this experience anticipating Uncle Vanya in Soho Rep‘s intimate space a bit more comfortable (more room side to side, more flexible space) than I usually am in an oddly proportioned theatre seat.  This day in a playing space blissfully cold to start despite the swampy summer weather outside, the air conditioners are shut off when the quiet action begins, and our worlds begin to close in on us, all of us, all at once in the rough and the languid dangerous boredom in Chekhov’s country world of privilege and servitude. Vanya as newly translated gives us lines such as “Everyone in the world, behaving naturally, is a complete creep.”  And Vanya as newly conceived by adapter Annie Baker and director Sam Gold is stunningly performed. A grand, quiet, small-scale, large impact achievement.

I hug my knees and listen, rapt, for two plus hours to the tales of lives caught in a sodden summer somnambulance, in a land of potential emotional treachery. Yelena (Maria Dizzia) and her much older husband the Professor (Peter Friedman) arrive at the country house inherited by the professor’s daughter Sonya (Merritt Wever), and which Sonya and the Sonya’s deceased mother’s brother, Uncle Vanya (Reed Birney) has kept running for over twenty years.  The household dynamics created by the arrival of a beautiful young woman married to a much older (and crotchety) man defines this story. Yelena is bored and entertains herself by engaging with Vanya (who professes love) and the doctor called to address her husband’s concerns (Michael Shannon) and even her stepdaughter Sonya, who is near her own age and they love each other all the same. All are enchanted by Yelena, and all, in their own ways, eventually are disappointed by her. Quiet intense interactions emerging from each character’s frustrations and boredom define this tale. In the end many strains are just as they were when the play began.  Marina (Georgia Engel), everyone’s nanny, cares for the adults as children. Vanya and Sonya continue to run the farm and servants and professionals continue in their tasks. What we have done is live intensely with this small group of people in a small and intense theatrical space.

The achievement is large. The language is spare. The performances are delicate and true and carefully pitched and powerful. And the work of the ledgers in the hands of Sonya and Vanya, the work of keeping the land and the home and the house in family hands and alive, continues as we walk out into our lives.  Delicious.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 24, 2012)

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