So Far Away

Uncle Vanya Directed by Jenny Cornuelle At the Loeb, November 19-22 at 8 p.m.

THERE IS A fundamental miscalculation in the new production of Uncle Vanya--the distance it puts us from the actors. Derek McLane's attractive set consists of a tall house frame, cocked at a slight angle upstage, and, to its right, a large patch of wheat and two swings that seem to reach forever up to the proscenium arch. The action after the first act is confined mainly to the house, which is towering but not very roomy, divided as it is into different levels. The actors, then, are both distant and dwarfed, surrounded by space and yet cramped; and against the purple sky of the second act, with rain falling steadily behind the house, really from the house, the director, Jenny Cornuelle, and the designers have concocted a haunting, far-away image of little people trapped by external and possibly internal forces. It is a valid and arresting picture, but it has been achieved at the expense of the rest of the production.

For Uncle Vanya cries out for intimacy. There are, as always, intense forces at work beneath Chekhov's relatively placid surface, but here they are not as sweeping as in his other plays: no armies come and go, no property is sold, no affairs are consummated, no duels fought, no suicides committed--indeed, it is Vanya's pathetic and half-hearted attempt at melodramatic action that points up the universal failure to act at the heart of the play. These are Chekhov's weariest and most resigned characters, and they are dying before our eyes. Watching them it is easy to understand why indolence is such an insidious and devastating sin, for it is this combination of inertia, inactivity and self-delusion, along with the larger failing of society and its moral codes, that quietly but firmly crushes the spirit of most of the characters. And much of this is revealed through monologues, often masquerading as dialogue, through intimate confessions and tiny confrontations that only hint at the inner explosions. The audience should be close enough to see its reflection in the water of their eyes, or--if that is too sentimental for you--to feel as a hurricane the very gentle breeze of a clenched fist being relaxed.

In the Loeb production it is difficult to see the actors' features or, often, to hear them over the fall of water--much less to catch an involuntary vocal tremor. So the problem that undergraduates have traditionally had at the Loeb--the sheer inability to occupy the space while maintaining a modicum of subtlety or humanity--is exacerbated. But the approach seems conscious, particularly when Cornuelle places an actor behind a pole during a key confrontation, or has Marina, the old nurse, speak throughout in Russian. These kind of alienation effects often shed surprising light on classic plays, but I question their use in Uncle Vanya. I believe the director misunderstands the strengths of this harrowing play, and the effects of this may be felt in every scene, in every performance.

The actors frequently shout to be heard, which serves to exaggerate the difference in age between them and their roles. Ralph Zito turns the twisted, self-centered Serebriakov into a buoyant, strapping cartoon villain. When Vanya charges him with ruining his life in their third-act confrontation, Zito rushes across the platforms to the other side of the house, breathing heavily and staring over the audience like a character in melodrama who can't face the awful truth. But the horror of Serebriakov is that he is too full of himself to begin to understand what Vanya is talking about. Instead of playing Serebriakov's intentions, Zito plays him from the outside, as an Asshole. As his wife, Elena, Bonnie Zimmering gives an earnest and detailed performance that is also in the wrong key. Her painful second act scene with Serebriakov, for example, becomes a shrieking match, when Elena's real tragedy is that she suffers too silently, that she pleads instead of yelling back.

BOTH BRIAN MCCUE and Grace Shohet have displayed considerable talent over the last few years in Harvard theater but have emerged with somewhat limited personae--McCue as a clever, charming but extremely mannered performer who shines in musicals and farces, Shohet as a technically competent but brash actress whose specialty is destructive bitchiness. I looked forward to seeing them as Vanya and Sonya because both parts would demand a considerable stretch, a certain nakedness that neither has hitherto displayed. But instead of stretching to their parts, both have stretched the parts to accommodate themselves. Shohet has made Sonya, the most compassionate and heroic force in the play, a self-absorbed little bully, failing to realize that there is love in Sonya's reprimands or that her suffering goes way beyond her own unrequited love. Cornuelle doesn't help in the third-act confrontation, staging Sonya center stage, completely absorbed in her own sorrow, almost oblivious to the wrenching spectacle of her Uncle Vanya.

McCue is a passable Vanya, but he proves unwilling or incapable of ditching his distracting mannerisms. In the first two acts he consistently plays for laughs, a crotchety jokester or ludicrous lover, jerking his body back from the waist and vocalizing like a pompous burgermeister with an occasional British falsetto. This great and silly character--simple to the point of transparency--becomes so cluttered as to be almost impenetrable. The rest of his performance is sloppy but sometimes affecting. The first night I saw the show McCue hit some surprising notes of anguish in the third act, but on the second the scene was shrill and unfelt.

Michael Cantor has chosen to underplay Astrov, delivering his lines in a folksy singsong while shaking his head and making perfunctory gestures like a small-town defense attorney, or, for that matter, our next president. This anti-declamatory approach works well from time to time, and some of Cantor's readings display wit and intelligence. But it also allows him to skip lightly over the surface of the part, taking at face value Astrov's assertion that he can no longer feel anything. Astrov feels things very deeply--his preoccupation with animals and the forests reveals a profound humanitarian urge that has been displaced after losing faith in mankind. He blames himself for killing a patient under chloroform because he no longer wants to heal, and his only hope is that when "we are sleeping in our coffins we might be visited by dreams, perhaps even pleasant ones."

Cornuelle successfully captures the characters' isolation, but at the expense of any ensemble feeling: just because the characters don't connect doesn't mean the actors can't play off each other. Thus, the third act upheaval doesn't build to anything, the actors standing around listlessly between histrionics. The storm, of course, is brought in by the arrival of Serebriakov and Elena, and foreshadows the emotional storm in the third act; but when the rain is abruptly turned off after the two depart it cheapens a very subtle metaphor. And I confess I don't really understand the point of the jazz music that is played at the beginning and end of each act. Although it is beautiful, lonely music it has nothing to do with the rhythm of the production; if it did, it would have been a daring move to attempt to integrate it once or twice into the action. When it is cranked on at the end of the play, it helps to obliterate what is perhaps the most heartbreaking finale in all dramatic literature, and this Uncle Vanya slinks away, having never really arrived.

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