Uncle Vanya

Where to even begin when speaking about the extraordinary production on Uncle Vanya playing at Soho Rep. Well, let’s start with the brilliant playwright Annie Baker. Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens) not only succeeds but excels in adapting this Anton Chekov classic for 2012. The humor and modernist themes Baker found - all of which are present in Chekov’s work - are beautifully brought to life. Told through Baker’s carefully chosen words, this soap opera is about caring for ourselves and others and about being at peace with our lives. 

Baker brings all sorts of classic, enduring themes to the forefront. The idea that the intellectuals are insufferable; that unremarkable lives breed boredom; that while failure is inevitable, for some it spells the end while for others it simply means resignation. Those who resign themselves to this type of life, as depicted in Uncle Vanya, may find purpose and solace in the mundane and routine.

Set in the estate the show is really set in the estate. You walk into the “theatre” and you’re inside Uncle Vanya’s home. Cushioned risers (with back support, mercifully) envelop the playing space, creating an entirely intimate atmosphere. This type of immersive theatre is particularly effective. I can’t even imagine this playing in a larger space or even a small but standard proscenium or thrust stage. Because here’s the wonderful thing about putting everyone - audience included - in the estate: All the character think they want to be alone, but we and most of the other characters never leave them. And they find greater peace in the company. 

I knew I would thrill over Reed Birney (Circle Mirror Transformation, A Small Fire) and Michael Shannon’s (Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter) performances, and I did. But the real standout was Merritt Wever, a stage veteran perhaps best known for her work on TV’s Nurse Jackie. (She was also on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived Studio 60.) Her face is an open book. There’s a scene in the first act in which her character, Sonya, is with Michael Shannon’s, Astrov. The way Wever gazed at Shannon during this quiet scene, I knew exactly what she was feeling (and it was later confirmed in act two). 

Sonya provides not quite a foil but rather a flip side of the same coin to her Uncle Vanya (Birney). They are not so different in their experience - both are on the unfortunate side of unrequited love and both are living lives much different from ones they might have dreamed. Where they differ is in their reaction to things. Whereas Vanya’s reaction to the harshness of reality is to act out, wielding a gun and nicking morphine from Astrov, the county doctor, Sonya’s reaction is to say, “We’ll endure.” I found the juxtaposition of these two character, especially as portrayed by the stellar Wever and Birney, to be sensational.

As expected, Reed Birney is incomparable. This man conveys more when simply standing still than most actors do with a brilliantly crafted Shakespearean soliloquy. Not that I mean to take anything away from his exceptional line deliveries. Indeed, he conveys such fragile, precarious strength - like a string inside him will snap once he gets through this flash of courage. I’ve seen Birney in several shows now and each character is different and thoroughly fleshed out and human. If you’ve never seen Birney on stage, do yourself a favor and get thee to the theatre!

Michael Shannon is intense. Whether Astrov is a rabble rousing drunk, an aloof man about town or a desperate man hopelessly in love, Shannon commits to the emotion with honesty and unmatched intensity. It’s also quite amazing, given his tall, broad build, that he’s able to transform himself into a whimpering, defeated pile of raw nerves. 

Bravo to Sam Gold for so craftily directing this tricky piece. Bravo for the way Gold has Reed Birney haphazardly demolish his food; bravo for the physicality Gold brings out of Maria Dizzia’s Yelena; bravo for the way Gold paced the nearly three-hour play without making it feel even a drop long or draggy. And bravo for the way Gold used his space, staging intense moments so that different audience members saw it from different, often limited angles. Sure, this was a necessity given the space, but I’ve been to shows in the round where pivotal moments are staged as if on a typical thrust. With Gold’s direction, audience members only got to see one character (often not even the character who was speaking), thereby successfully focusing our attention in an uncommon way.

This is not your script analysis professor’s Chekov, and thank Thespis for that. There’s a line on Sports Night about Broadway musicals. One character says he doesn’t like them, and Dana says, “The trick is: you have to find the ones without the hoedown.” Similarly, Chekov isn’t dry or out dated or difficult to consume. The trick is: you have to find the right team of collaborators, and lucky for us, in Annie Baker, Sam Gold and company, we have.  

For more information about this Soho Rep production of Uncle Vanya and to purchase tickets, visit Soho Rep's website.

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