April 4, 2008

Unrest visits the family, audience in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya

Sojourns to the countryside can inspire great clarity—or, if they go badly, they can engender loneliness, uncertainty, and general misdirection. In the first production of a season uncharacteristically devoted to well known works of theater, TUTA Theatre Chicago offers up a strong dose of Chekhovian existentialism in their alternately comic and desolate rendition of Uncle Vanya, the classic chronicle of a country household disrupted by visiting intellectual relatives who bring with them all manner of psychological malaise.

Attendees are handed a bottle of pillow mint “pills,” presumably to fortify them against the voyeuristic experience to come; then they are ushered into the rosy sitting room that connects to the basement stage of the Chopin Theatre, just steps from the Division Street El. Few venues are as intimate as this one. When they’re not running around the cavernous space, the characters—the cosseted, rheumatic professor, his gentle but fraying young wife, the rakish doctor, patient Sonya, and raging, impotent Vanya himself—are close enough to be in the family. The minimalist set of director Zeljko Djukic has the feel of a house halfway through construction—an apt environment for a play in which emotional space is of utmost concern.

The play is essentially an extended description of unchanging relationships. The production’s quality, therefore, hinges on the actors’ abilities to depict the precarious relations between Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century characters with honesty and delicacy. For the most part, the show more than satisfies in this respect. Though the dialogue is at times oddly modernized, the leads give restrained performances linked by a common underlying tension. Astrov, here, is a not-entirely charming rake. Some of the seriousness of the original character is missing, but he makes up for it with his facial expressions. Vanya, though, is less convincing; though appropriately despairing, the actor cast seems too young to pull off the gravity of the role.

The more memorable performances belong to the female characters. Elena is polished in manner, yet there’s something in her air that’s perceptibly still and sad. And Sonya, who is closest to the audience both in sanity and emotional state, is acted with just the right level of maturity. As she wavers between the fatalism of the others and a more vulnerable state, her stark observations of her options in life keep her from being pitiable. “When a woman isn’t pretty they say, you have beautiful eyes, you have beautiful hair,” she replies to a compliment from Elena in one scene.

Spiritual dissatisfaction is depicted here as the inheritance of the intellectual class, which probably offends more people today than it used to. Through all of its interminable silences and fruitless confrontations, though, Uncle Vanya contains a quiet compassion for these people, who are not malicious, but simply subjects of what appears to be an incomprehensible affliction of the will. The prescription, as usual, is good honest work (along with moderate amounts of vodka). But though the lights dim on Sonya repeating a grimly hopeful mantra with increasing conviction, the actors in the closing tableau appear distinctly unsettled, and leave the audience that way as well. This extended put-down of the intellectual life in an underground theater where the distant rumbling of the Blue Line intermingled with a soundtrack of phantom bird noises was more than enough to make an audience member ill at ease.