Weston’s updated ‘Uncle Vanya’ is fresh though uneven

By David Lampe-Wilson

©The Chester Telegraph – 2014

Weston Playhouse’s current production of Uncle Vanya is a decidedly mixed bag, and it takes a dedicated theatergoer to patiently separate the gold from the dross and find the rich nuggets that lie within.

Jeanine Serralles as Sonya, right, and Liam Craig as Vanya. Weston Playhouse photo.

Jeanine Serralles as Sonya, right, and Liam Craig as Vanya. Weston Playhouse photo.

Americans’ exposure to classic theater is often limited, and Chekhov has not fared well.  Older translations of his work sound stilted, stolid and stale to our modern ear.

On this side of the Atlantic, if we must have classic theater, give us Shakespearean kings and generals. Chekhov, by contrast, gives us doctors and academics – weak and lonely people who endure their existence. He looks at the world with clarity and at the human condition without sentimentally. His are normal people who struggle for happiness and who search for significance in the trivialities of life. Their stories are simple, their lives humdrum, their existence bearable.

Playwright Annie Baker’s new version of Uncle Vanya casts Chekhov’s 19th-century play in a new light using the language of today. The dialogue sounds fresh and Chekhov’s characters’ trivialities seem vital again. Uncle Vanya is about love and yearning and aging, and also about the environment and the burdens that life brings to us all.

Baker has been true to Chekhov’s themes, including his environmentalism and worry over climate change – yes, even in the 19th century — and she has been true to Chekhov’s language, which is simple and realistic. The plot concerns two failed love affairs — both with the same woman. Both men are drunks — Astrov, a country doctor (played to a fare-thee-well by Campbell Scott), and Uncle Vanya (played by the bellicose Liam Craig). The woman they both love is Yelena (Kathleen McElfresh), who is married to academic Alexander Serebryakov (Munson Hicks).

Serebryakov has moved into the family home with his beautiful new wife who is half his age to live there with his daughter Sonya (Jeanine Serralles in a funny/tear-stained turn) who owns the estate that she runs with her uncle (Vanya). The arrival of these guests upsets the harmony of the estate and the lives of its inhabitants.

But the playhouse’s production, seen in final preview performance, goes somewhere out into left field with director Mike Donahue’s modern spin.

While we hear talk about peasants, typhus epidemics and samovars, we are obviously firmly planted in Anytown, U.S.A., where folks wear blues jeans and drink tea brewed in a West Bend coffeemaker … if, indeed, anyone actually does. Before we know it, we are listening to strains of “The Pina Colada Song” and wondering where it all went wrong.

In addition, Scene One takes place in a garden fitted out to look like a Labor Day yard sale, with furniture piled in corners and accessed as the play moves forward. While a jumble of furniture may be meant to serve as some sort of metaphor, it is merely a jumble of furniture to viewers and a decided distraction to anyone in the audience who would prefer to focus less on the problems of modern-day recycling and more on the content of this otherwise engaging play.

At its base, there is a morality that flavors the play: Hard work, as represented by Astrov, Vanya and Sonya, is juxtaposed with indolence, as represented by the beautiful Yelena, and arrogance, as represented by the didactic Alexander. But tension never builds organically – McElfresh’s Yelena fails to ooze the required innocent sensuality and we begin to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Supporting players are strong and assured, and they mesh well with the principals. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design is direct and unobtrusive – in other words, excellent. Anya Kelpikov’s costumes are suitably woodsy/rural, so one has to question the late Second Act arrival of a sparkling jacket that looks like it belongs in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But in an evening of constantly clashing styles, it really should come as no surprise.

Uncle Vanya continues through Sept. 6 at the Weston Playhouse, 703 Main St., Weston. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, call 802-824-5288.

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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