Cruel Cosmos

Banyan's Vanya's flawed but engaging

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click to enlarge CHEKHOVIAN PATHOS: Jeff Norton as Dr. Astrov - and Colleen McDonnell as Yelena get it right. - Lunardi Photography
Lunardi Photography
CHEKHOVIAN PATHOS: Jeff Norton as Dr. Astrov and Colleen McDonnell as Yelena get it right.

Chekhov's is a theater of missed connections, of failures to communicate, of mismatches and cross purposes. In a typical Chekhov play, true love is unrequited, crucial action goes unperformed, brilliant careers turn out to have been frauds, and nearly everyone is unhappy. Excess of tears is, as Blake said, laughter, and one can understand why Chekhov thought he was writing comedies: In the land of the endless pratfall, we must all be clowns. But one can understand too why Stanislavsky thought Chekhov was onto something much more solemn: If life is this screwed up, everyone of us is a tragic hero.

In either case, the problem is the universe itself, which, in Chekhov's view, is essentially unaccommodating, a cruel prankster of a place that delights in undermining and defeating its denizens. It's the cosmos itself that keeps the Three Sisters from reaching Moscow, that arranges the loss of the Cherry Orchard, that turns a vibrant young actress into a shattered Seagull. And it's the cosmos itself that has changed Uncle Vanya from a young, enthusiastic intellectual into a battered, skittish, self-hating grouch, sure that life has cheated him, and absolutely unclear on what to do about it.

Or at least, that's the way Chekhov wrote the part. It's not precisely the way Douglas Jones plays the role, which is one of the reasons the Banyan Theatre production of Uncle Vanya is, for all its strengths, not totally satisfying.

Chekhov's Vanya is a battle-scarred eccentric, precisely the sort of oddball we would expect in a universe so inimical to human desire. But Jones, who is usually one of Sarasota's best actors, gives Vanya an unChekhovian dignity and solidity, a quiet centeredness and strength that couldn't be more wrong for a character who should be in an existential panic.

The right way to play Chekhov is exhibited by Jeff Norton in his impersonation of Vanya's friend, the proto-environmentalist Dr. Astrov. Norton's Astrov is anguished, disquieted, disturbed — just what we might expect of a sensitive soul in a kind of hell. Jones' Vanya, on the other hand, seems (except for a wonderfully mad outburst late in the play) rather comfortable on the earth, pretty much inured to the life he has made for himself on his late sister's estate. Put the two characters together — as often happens in the course of the play — and the result is just confusing. Why does Astrov register the perversity of the cosmos while Vanya escapes it? Vanya claims to be aware that life has cheated him, but why does he seem, nevertheless, so at peace?

Certainly the events of the play should drive him to distraction. Uncle Vanya begins after the arrival of Professor Serebriakov and his beautiful young wife Yelena to the country estate on which Vanya and his niece Sonya live. Once Vanya and Sonya had the strongest faith in the professor, struggled to support him financially and encouraged his writings on art. But now Vanya feels that all this effort was misguided, that Serebriakov is a nonentity whose greatness was nothing more than a costly illusion.

Disturbed by the proximity of the man for whom he wasted his youth, Vanya is further distressed by the presence of Yelena, whom he desperately loves but who remains maddeningly faithful to her aging, ailing husband. Rebuffed by Yelena, shocked to find her one day in the embrace of Dr. Astrov, Vanya finally loses control when the professor proposes that everyone vacate the estate so that he can enjoy the proceeds of its sale. Vanya rages at the stunned academic and even tries to shoot him. But in Chekhov's universe, no one can even shoot straight. Finally Serebriakov and Yelena leave, and Vanya and his niece try to get on with their lives.

Of course, Chekhov being Chekhov, the real drama of the play is not so much in its plot as in the moment-by-moment interplay of characters who never quite reach each other. Ideally, there's an atmosphere to a successful Chekhov production, as if the very air were infected by the incongruity of things. That atmosphere is mostly missing from Gil Lazier's staging of this production, but there are some provocative, memorable performances nonetheless.

Most interesting is Colleen McDonnell as Yelena. In past productions of this play, I've seen Yelena played as an honest, sincere woman who's only criticized by Vanya because he knows he can't have her. McDonnell takes a different tack: Her Yelena is precisely the indolent, spoiled creature Vanya describes, a languorous sex kitten, lazy and vain. This is a portrayal without irony, but it works, and that makes me wonder if Chekhov didn't intend it after all.

Also fine is Bradford Wallace as Serebriakov. Here's a man who's so utterly self-absorbed that it's amazing he notices anyone else's existence. Wendy Bagger as Sonya turns in a curious performance. She's likable enough and touching at moments, but she lacks the indefatigable hope and deep reserves of compassion that, when present, make this character our special conduit to the angelic. The other actors — Miriam Ring as Marina, Jerry M. Finn as Telegin, and Ray Crucet as a Hired Man — all turn in sturdy performances.

Steven Rubin's sets of the garden and interior of a Russian estate are austerely beautiful, and Cathleen M. Crocker-Perry's period costumes couldn't be better.

There's one other slight problem with the play: Paul Schmidt's translation, which from time to time is marred by such jarring locutions (for 1896) as "bullshit," "old fart," "acne" and "freak." But even with a Vanya who doesn't quite fit (or who's not enough of a misfit), this is a creditable production with more virtues than failings. Director Lazier does find the humor in the text, and there are moments — for example, Vanya's blowup in Act Two — that are as embarrassing, confused and asymmetrical as anything in Chekhov. At these moments, we're truly invited into the Master's world.

That's a forbidding place — cold and heartless and full of mischief. It turned Vanya into a crank and Astrov into an anxious mess.

Is it our world too?

You can decide for yourself — with the help of this flawed but engaging production.

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected].

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