Brilliant acting propels a tale of inertia and despair.
“What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life,” Anton Chekhov once said, and Uncle Vanya, with its embrace of life’s painful and funny ironies, is a perfect tragicomic example. A lot happens in the four-act play, but little changes—but under Kathryn MacMillan’s direction in a powerfully affecting production by Lantern Theater Company, inertia has never been so involving.
Vanya is set on the country estate of a middle-class family in turn-of-the-century Russia. The full-time residents—the title character (Peter DeLaurier), his plain niece Sonya (Melissa Lynch) and his mother (Ceal Phelan)—are joined by Sonya’s visiting father, Serebryakov (David Howey), a retired academic once married to Vanya’s sister, and his beautiful second wife Yelena (Sarah Sanford). Vanya’s in love with Yelena; so is country doctor Astrov (Charlie DelMarcelle), who starts hanging around after she turns up. His presence delights the painfully shy Sonya, secretly in love with the doctor. But Astrov only has eyes for Yelena, who detests her pompous, much-older husband.
Although the play is set in 19th-century Russia, Lantern’s production manages to feel neither dated nor foreign. Millie Hiibel’s costumes evoke the period, but the fabrics and cut (particularly the men’s) don’t differ greatly from contemporary dress. And, unlike many other Chekhov productions, the actors don't arbitrarily adopt Russian accents. The result is that even with their Russian names the characters seem familiar—they’re unhappy, but not in a particularly exotic way.
One of the limitations of the thrust stage (bordered by the audience on three sides rather than just the one) at St. Stephens Theater is that actors don’t always face the entire audience, which got annoying. Chekhov’s characters don’t tend to say exactly what they think, forcing the audience to rely more than usual on subtleties of facial expression. The space’s drawbacks are nearly countered by its assets—the close proximity to the actors made for a feeling of intimacy, as if we were ourselves inside the country home—but the occasional lack of facial cues was frustrating.
But even given the difficulties of the space, the acting, led by DeLaurier in the title role, is brilliant. DeLaurier, a two-time Barrymore winner, sinks his teeth into the role of the dispirited Vanya with an emotive, physical performance that ranks among his best.
“I drink to fool myself I’m alive,” Vanya explains at one point, lying spread-eagle on the floor, his pained expression suggesting that alcohol no longer provides a refuge from his troubles. Vanya has spent his life working on the estate, all the while suspecting that he’s ruined his life by not leaving like his siter did. Over the course of the play, it comes through in DeLaurier’s movements, which become increasingly slow and sluggish until at the end he sits slumped over a desk with his head in his hands.
Melissa Lynch as Sonya is no less heartbreaking. The youngest member of the household, she’s also in many ways the most responsible—while her uncle drinks and yearns for Yelena, she worries about the harvest. In public Sonya is resilient, but in private she’s tortured by her desire for Astrov and lack of companionship. “It’s terrible being plain,” she says to Yelena, shoulders dropping and large round eyes welling up with tears. She believes she has found a confidant in her stepmother, but the deceitful Yelena has her own agenda.
And in his best performance in years, David Howey is exceptional as the self-involved Serebryakov. A celebrated academic accustomed to the applause of colleagues, he feels lost in the anonymity of country life. Portraying Serebryakov as a celebrity whose best days are behind him, Howey uses his classically trained voice (he worked for years with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company) to command attention.
All four of Chekhov’s major full-length plays involve guns—in fact, he’s the source of the famous literary advice “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” This tends to go down offstage rather than in the most literal sense, but in Vanya, the gunfire erupts in the middle of the drawing room. It is a shocking, calm-shattering moment, and the farcical aftermath is both funny and frightening, a contrast that well captures the sense of contradiction running through the play.
Through Nov. 21. $20-$36. St. Stephens Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org