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Uncle Vanya

By John Barry | Posted 9/15/2004

Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Friel

At the Everyman Theatre through Oct. 17

Itís the end of summer on the Serebryakov estate. The air is getting cooler, and the summer romances, real and imagined, are coming to a close. People begin to wonder how theyíre going to make it through another winter. There are two possible options for that: getting depressed or going crazy. Everymanís version of Anton Chekhovís Uncle Vanya leans, successfully, in the direction of the funny farm.

For 25 years, Vanya (Mitchell Hťbert, pictured) and his niece Sonya (Maia DeSanti) have been laboring away on the estate, sending their earnings to its absentee owners, Professor Alexander Serebryakov (Dan Manning) and his young wife, Elena (Deborah Hazlett). Now, the owners have returned. Vanya is in love with Elena; the estateís Dr. Astrov is in love with her as well; the professor thinks Elena wants him dead; Sonya is in love with Astrov; and Elena is unsure what she should do. Simply put, itís a mess. They love one another, hate one another, want to kill one another, or want to marry one another. But the time and place seem to be permanently wrong.

Everyman isnít the first theater company to find the humor in this grim scenario. Chekhov himself, though, might not get all the jokes. Thereís some winking and nodding in Brian Frielís modern translation, and there are a few insertions of over-the-top humor that challenge the slow buildup. But the occasional liberties taken in this production are worth it in the end.

Hťbertís fascinating portrayal of Vanya has a psychological complexity that isnít usually associated with Chekhov. Arguing with his demons, he is helplessly, childishly enraged at his own loneliness. Heís in a desperate search for someone to blame, and eventually he turns on himself. Hťbertís performance lends Vanya an almost ecstatic, Dostoevskian dimension: As he puts on his spectacles at the end and returns to work, we know that he has truly run the spiritual gauntlet.

Vincent Lancisiís artistic direction gives the play a lurching, sometimes arrhythmic quality that fascinates, though it sometimes disturbs the larger sweep. In an initial scene, for instance, Astrov and Vanya go on a wild bender that seems straight out of Animal House. So much for the slow buildup.

Itís difficult to believe that this is quite what Chekhov had in mind, but after a century of being lyrically melancholic this Uncle Vanya is manically depressed. So yes, this is Chekhov for the 21st century, minus the Prozac.

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