Inspiring production of one of world’s great plays
|Goodman Theatre presents|
Review by John Olson
Those of us who see a lot of Chicago theater (i.e. readers and writers of this site) can take the quantity and quality of art available to us in this city for granted. But every once a in a while, there’s a show that reminds us just how great we have it here, and Goodman Theatre’s Uncle Vanya is one of those shows. It helps to start with a script like Uncle Vanya – no mere classic, it was one of the very first plays to define modern theater. And it helps a lot to have this “translaptation” by Annie Baker that remains true and remarkably close to other translations while making it more accessible to our present-day ears. But putting the script in the hands of some of our city’s very finest theater artists (plus a few impressive out-of-town “ringers” in the cast) just shows what our people can do with the right script.
Director Robert Falls is at the top of his game here, finding the gentle humor in Chekhov’s comedy even as it explores the play’s timeless themes. Chekhov’s Vanya has been caretaker/manager of the estate that was owned by his late sister and willed to her daughter, Sonia, Vanya’s niece. Though Sonia technically owns the property, her father Alexander Serebryakov considers it his, and has been living off the profits of the estate resulting from Vanya and Sonia’s management. All this time, Vanya has performed these duties for only a meager salary. That might be reason enough to resent Serebryakov, but Serebryakov has additionally married a beautiful and much younger woman, Yelena, for whom Vanya has developed an infatuation. Similarly, Sonia has unrequited love for the scientist Astrov who barely notices her and becomes taken with Yelena himself. The tension between the selfish and un-self-aware Serebryakov and Astrov played against the suffering-in-silence Vanya and Sonia provides ample opportunity for comedy. The question of how to be kind, loyal and useful to others while being true to oneself is the deeper theme inherent in the play.
Who better to play these contradictions than our local master of emotionally grounded comedy, Tim Hopper, the Steppenwolf ensemble member making a guest appearance at the Goodman as Vanya. His timing, physicality and honesty make him one of funniest and most touching actors in the city. His niece Sonia is played by Caroline Neff, an ensemble member with Steppenwolf and Steep Theatre who, with her incredible range, can play from waif to dominatrix. She’s a waif here, heartbreaking in her unrequited love for Astrov.
One of the ringers is Kristen Bush, as lovely as the text implies Yelena to be, but more importantly, creating a complex, nuanced character – the Yelena who is likely the smartest one in the room and who has genuine compassion for the others in it. The other is Marton Csokas as the stoic Dr. Astrov – obsessed with the ecological damage being done to the countryside by urban development but not above letting some animal passions bubble up. Chicago veteran David Darlow is Serebryakov, the retired University professor who Vanya believes to be a fraud and who is utterly insensitive to the needs of the others in his family. Darlow gives a performance that is more understated than it needs to be, however. He and Falls might have chosen to have a little more fun with the character.
These four are surrounded by superb local character actors in supporting roles – the Chicago treasures Larry Neumann, Jr. as Telegin, (nicknamed “Waffles”) an old family friend who lives on the estate; Mary Ann Thebus as the nurse and Marilyn Dodds Frank as Vanya’s dotty mother Maria. They all provide sharp comic relief against the high emotional stakes of the Chekhov text.
The action is placed on a hyper-realistic set designed by Todd Rosenthal, the dean of such scenic design. He gives us a grand but crumbling sitting room of the estate, with large doorways showing the lush vegetation outside. The three times of day of the play’s action – late afternoon, late at night and morning – are suggested brilliantly by Keith Parham’s lighting design and Ana Kuzmanic’s earth-toned costumes suggest time and place clearly.
With ticket prices of $20 to $59, this production is a gift to the community. Where else but Chicago would it be possible to see such a fine production of one of the world’s great plays at that price?
Uncle Vanya continues through March 19th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-$59, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at GoodmanTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Kristen Bush (Yelena), Marton Csokas (Astrov), David Darlow (Serebryakov), Marilyn Dodds Frank (Maria), Tim Hopper (Vanya), Caroline Neff (Sonya), Larry Neumann Jr. (Telegin), Alžan Pelesić (Yefim), Mary Ann Thebus (Marina).
behind the scenes
Robert Falls (director), Todd Rosenthal (set design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting design), Richard Woodbury (sound design), Kimberly Osgood (production stage manager). Erica Santini-Combs, Adam Belcuore (casting), Neena Arndt (dramaturg), Liz Lauren (photos)