‘Uncle Vanya’ explores the parallels between play and life

In a moment of passion, the professor’s wife, Yelena (Madeline Seidman ’17), and the village doctor, Astrov (Tom Robertshaw ’19), finally risk an illicit kiss. A young girl sitting across from me threw her hands over her eyes immediately, bury-ing her face in her mother’s shoulder for good measure. In contrast, the rest of the audience remained riveted, caught up in a rare moment when emotions are allowed to transgress the open air. In this production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya by the theatre department, the audience is distributed amongst the scene as they become part and parcel of the performance, calling attention to the parallels between the play and life. Thus when Astrov laments the tedium of living in the Russian countryside, one cannot help but feel as though he is also remarking on life in the Berkshires: “… my feelings have got somehow blunted.”

Blunted feelings in Uncle Vanya seem to be a question of necessity and survival, rather than just a result of prolonged isolation. When Serebryakov (Michael Tcherepashenets ’17), a pompous and gout-ridden professor, returns to his country estate with his young and captivating wife Yelena, his ill-humor is a poor recompense to his brother-in-law, Uncle Vanya (Terah Ehigiator ’18), and his daughter from his first marriage, Sonya (Mia Hull ’17), whose frugal management and dedicated toil funded his lifestyle in the city. Serebryakov’s return not only tests old attachments but, in addition, leads to new and complicated ones; Vanya finds himself drawn to Yelena, who does not return his affections. She finds herself drawn to Astrov instead, who begins to visit the estate with increasing frequency. Unfortunately, Astrov is not there to visit Sonya, who has been nursing an attachment to him for years, and most certainly not to tend to Serebrayakov’s gout. Given the precarious proximity of their feelings, it is perhaps to the benefit of all that everyone finds themselves a little dulled in their sentiments and blunted in their conflicts.

This site-specific production by the theatre department transposes Uncle Vanya from its summer Russian habitat to the snowy setting of New England without losing any of the intense intimacy and claustrophobia that the original play demands. By tailoring the play to an underused property, Mount Hope, this production brings the estate from 1910 back to life. As we are directed into different rooms between scenes by a wandering minstrel (William Ouweleen ’19), we are well aware that we are merely passing through another world. For example, when Sonya slides open a wall in the library to retrieve some bread and cheese for Astrov, it feels like a small revelation, rather than a gesture for the sake of narrative. Or when the Serebrayakov enters with his wife and daughter after a walk in the snow, the audience shivers involuntarily at the draft coming in from the open door – there is no need for us to be-lieve in the snow, especially when we were instructed to leave our coats on the bus.

In this production, we find ourselves transported into a world that feels truly lived in – events do not just happen offstage; they happen elsewhere. The movement from room to room and scene to scene kept the tenor of each moment compartmentalized, even as these transitions kept things moving, quite literally.

Although it is physical movement that bridges each scene, it is the direction of our collective gaze that builds the narrative, as the performance often takes place in between the audience. Sonya’s longing gaze at Astrov alerts the audience to her feelings, even before she voices them, while Serebraykov’s perpetually distant gaze reminds us of his peripheral centrality. I also could not help but notice that even as the characters complained of tedium, many among the audience found themselves struggling against the physical demands of the play, breaking into yawns that unconsciously echoed the play’s complaint.

Uncle Vanya may well be its own answer to the tedium it expresses. It is a production where two gunshots can be the least exciting moments, carried throughout by brilliant acting and heartwarming laughter; the sight of the usually elegant Yelena toppling over onto a chaise as she complains of boredom or when she tucks a pencil into her hair, candidly informing Astrov that she is taking it to remember him by; or perhaps when Astrov begins a drunken jig, only to excuse his impropriety (he is not wearing a tie). Ultimately, the insightful sharpness of this production lies in the unexpected closeness between life and art: the old nurse (Emma Mandel ’17) is the only character who shows Serbraykov genuine sympathy, going out of her way to help him out of his chair. As he hobbles off with his cane, she shuffles next to him, reminding him that she can viscerally understand the ungraceful condition of age – “I’ve got an ache in my legs too.” The chuckles from the audience in turn remind us that many there understand her words all too well and that the beauty of this production lies in how it never strays far from life.

The insightful sharpness of Uncle Vanya’s inspiring production lies in the unexpected closeness portrayed between life and art. Photo courtesy of Randal Fippinger.