UNCLE VANYA at The Old Globe rings true in a new translation

Classics are classics because they have a resonance that lasts long after their final word has been written.  The Old Globe’s production of UNCLE VANYA, by Anton Chekhov, with a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky with playwright and production director Richard Nelson, is nothing short of an excellent example of letting a classic have its vibrant say once again.

(from left) Celeste Arias as Eléna, Yvonne Woods as Sónya, Jay O. Sanders as Ványa, and Roberta Maxwell as Márya in Uncle Vanya, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, directed and translated by Richard Nelson, running February 10 – March 11, 2018 at The Old Globe. Photo by Jim Cox.

The play follows a family on a provincial estate in the country this play still connects with audiences on the meaning of people’s lives and actions.  This estate is run by Ványa (Jay O. Sanders) and his niece Sónya (Yvonne Woods), who have worked this farm their entire lives to support Sónya’s father Alexánder (Jon DeVries), a professor who turns out may not be the lasting visionary that any of them had thought he was.  He has brought with him his very young second wife Eléna (Celeste Arias) who is lovely, and bored, but unwilling to do any actual work. Her loveliness is enough of a distraction to bewitch both Ványa and the local doctor and environmentalist Ástrov (Jesse Pennington).  All of them are suffering from profound sense of dissatisfaction and boredom with their lot in life, but lack the drive or nerve to try change.

All of this is presented in a “conversational” style; the intimacy (and volume) of a family conversation across the dining room table from each other.  Though supplemented by very carefully positioned speakers and personal hearing devices if you need them, this style intimately draws the audience in to their family situation.  It’s almost as if you are peering through their farmhouse window and watching all of this play out.

It also helps establish stillness and quietness which reinforces the sense of isolation this family feels cut off from the rest of the world.  Instead of feeling affected, the soft, but building tension keeps the audience so connected through this pacing and technique that when Ványa’s fit of temper in the second act appears it feels explosive and almost dangerous.

Jay O. Sanders is a fantastic Ványa and is very suited to this conversational style. He makes the dialogue feel natural and spontaneous.  His Ványa is emotionally changeable, discontented with how he has spent his life, and depressed, but yet he never loses a feeling of being relatable to the audience.

Woods as Sónya is sincerely sympathetic, if pragmatic about her place in this world.  Her relationships with Arias as her stepmother Eléna (and her rival for the affections of the Doctor Ástrov) are excellent showing two women both at odds and working together at the same time to try to make their time pleasant in this forced proximity.

Pennington as Ástrov is exhausted from his duties as a Doctor, despondent over the future of his beloved forests, and only finds solace in shots of vodka and Eléna’s beauty.  His scenes between Kate Kearney-Patch as Marína, the nanny who lives on the estate and helps the family, bring a welcome sense of humor and friendly understanding of each other to this family dynamic.

Jon DeVries is excellent as a tiresome and entitled bully convinced of his own brilliance and terrified of his fade into obscurity.  Roberta Maxwell adds to the mix as Ványa’s mother, who adores the professor much to Ványa’s jealousy and incomprehension.

Directed by Richard Nelson this play is well paced at two hours and as the relationships and heartbreak unfold, are punctuated with lightness with moments of humor.  This production is perfect for the theater in the round of the White theatre; the audience feels as if they are just joining this family around the rustic home with multiple tables and chairs designed by Jason Ardizzone-West.  Jennifer Tipton’s lighting makes the theatre a warm kitchen, where the light plays subtly as the summer moves into fall around this family.  The sound design by Will Pickens must be challenging with this style, but everything is carefully calibrated so you don’t miss anything between the speakers and the headphones if necessary without sounding false or delayed.

For a play contemplating usefulness and having a purpose to life’s actions, and family drama, this production of UNCLE VANYA shows that this classic still has quite a bit left for audience to be entertained and challenged by even after all this time. The characters in this production may be dissatisfied with some of their choices, but you won’t feel that way after seeing this show.

UNCLE VANYA is playing through March 11th at The Old Globe in the Sheryl and Harvey white Theatre.  For tickets and show times go to www.theoldglobe.org or call 619-234-5623.

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