Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is a striking display of the inspiration and technical mastery that sets Chekhov far above most of his countless imitators. The subtlety, the probing insight into character, the sensitive, tragic spirit that is touched by moments of bright comedy--create a situation drama that is quiet, intense, and marvelously touching. And because Vanya is so personal and muted, and its action so internal, the play is exactly suited to the type of production it receives from Adams House.
Under the thoroughly intelligent direction of John Fenn, the action is presented in an arena theatre, with interesting use of entrances and exits from all sides. His actors make good use of their closeness to the audience, as well as of the fact that they never have to face forward--the audience surrounds them from three sides. Unfortunately, although many of the individual actors often use their freedom and intimacy to do excellent work with their roles, the characters hardly ever act and speak to one another. They are not integrated; they are striking by themselves, but sacrifice the effect of an inter-related group. In Uncle Vanya this is a grave flaw.
For it is not a play of violent action or of individual detachment. A stale retired professor (Serebriakov), his young wife (Elena), and the daughter (Sonia), brother (Vanya), and mother of his first wife live cramped lives on a faded Russian estate. A visitor, the overworked local doctor (Astrov) wanders in and out of the household. Sonia loves the doctor, who is unaware of her as a woman. Vanya, who feels oppressed and trapped, shares with the doctor a love for Elena, who is quite miserable with her old and pompous husband. The doctor dreams of forestry and the future, yet sees his education and brightness sinking into the mud of Russian country life.
Until the final departure of Serebriakov and Elena, the one real act in the play is Uncle Vanya's overflow of rage at Serebriakov because the overweeningly self-assertive professor has stifled his life. Vanya shoots Serebriakov twice, once on stage at close range. He misses. Thus the tensions between the principals, their coordinated emotions, and their interdependent sadness are vital. And this is a dimension of Chekhov that the Adams actors rarely create.
Yet there is fine acting in the production. As Doctor Astrov, Robert Jordan is extraordinarily right. His skillful make-up helps his exceptional voice and delightful, slightly grand manner; he becomes both noble and sad, within seriousness, especially in his most effective scene, and displays a remarkable facility in portraying comedy where he is drunk. As Vanya, John Mautner is at moments persuasive. His performance vacillates uneasily, however, and his awkward arms and constantly nervous voice and eyes were occasionally distracting. Even if Vanya is nervous, Mautner could well be more relaxed.
Richard Smithies plays Serebriakov with so much force and nearly boisterous gusto that even his admirable technical skill and control of such details as his hands, could not quite create a convincing aged man. The contrast to the rather pale followers who inevitably surrounded him made his polished performance slightly too heavy for the play, although he succeeded completely in any comic passages. Mij Gohr, playing his wife, was sensitive and graceful, giving a quiet impression of sensitive acting; she was also, however, a bit frozen. As Sonia, Charlotte Clark looked believable, but stood rather rigidly, often in awkward closeness to others on stage. Her face occasionally wandered far out of her role, and she was only at moments able to bring the partial vitality, youth, and hope of Sonia onto the stage. Marc Brugnoni brought interest and skill to the part of a broken friend of the family.
As a whole, despite the incomplete integration, the individual acting and the intriguing production in the round were enough to make much of Uncle Vanya.