Commanding performances rule in Court’s rendition of Chekhov masterpiece

By Andrew Hammond

American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill often evade the issue of mortality. Suffering and death rarely trump the American playwrights’ preoccupations with alcoholism and father-son relations. Anton Chekhov, on the other hand, never avoids the issue. He wrestles it to the ground, and that struggle is on full display in Court Theatre’s latest production. Uncle Vanya, which opened last Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is ultimately an exploration of the human condition. Two intrepid actors lead this exploration: Kevin Gudahl in the title role and Timothy Edward Kane as Astrov, the country doctor.

Kevin Gudahl’s portrayal of Uncle Vanya is without question the most probing of the production. Recently, Gudahl has given Chicago theatergoers superior performances as the male lead in Court’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as the Duke of Albany in the Goodman’s King Lear, and in Chicago Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Gudahl has myriad strengths as an actor, but it is his voice, which treats each line like a song lyric, that captivates you. His voice makes him arguably the most skilled actor on the Chicago stage today.

What makes this production especially engrossing is that Gudahl has some serious competition from Timothy Edward Kane, who gives an electric performance as Astrov. Like Gudahl, Kane is in complete control of his performance. He is as adept at harnessing Astrov’s crusading spirit as he is at hamming up his drunken rants. Kane’s elegy on forests is a sight to see, and like the other characters on stage except Vanya, the audience cannot help but be mesmerized.

The supporting cast is superb. Penny Slusher and Matthew Crause squeeze a lot of comedy into their smaller rolls. Elizabeth Ledo’s performance as Sonya particularly deserves mention. Sonya is both the most naïve and the most knowing character in the play. She is a young girl with an old soul, which makes her a fascinating character to watch but a difficult one to play. Ledo pulls it off with genuine grace, especially in the final moments of the production.

Unfortunately, there are some moments in the play that distract from these stellar performances. The set design by Leigh Breslau, an architect by trade, is striking, but the stage is so large and the blocking so hectic in the opening minutes that the dialogue is sometimes missed. The lighting design by John Culbert is awkward in the exchange between Yelena and her aging husband, and almost blinding in a later scene.

Chaon Cross’s portrayal of Yelena does not show us why men like Vanya and Astrov obsess over her. Perhaps our partiality for the two men prevents us from having any sympathy toward her, but it is as if Cross never even tries to win us over. Nevertheless, these flaws are barely noticed amid the virtuoso performances of Gudahl and Kane.

Under Charles Newell’s direction, the cast is able to pull off Chekhov’s greatest achievement: his refusal to make his art expressly tragic or comedic, which allows him to craft an organic mixture of the two classic forms. The result is art that feels immediate, earnest, and enthralling.