Masterfully adapted, heartfelt 'Vanya' at the Gamm

By F. William Oakes
Posted 2/7/18

  To describe The Gamm Theatre’s production of Anton Chekov’s classic play “Uncle Vanya” ‘heartfelt’ is apt, but a gross understatement. Incredibly …

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Masterfully adapted, heartfelt 'Vanya' at the Gamm


  To describe The Gamm Theatre’s production of Anton Chekov’s classic play “Uncle Vanya” ‘heartfelt’ is apt, but a gross understatement. Incredibly ‘heart knowledgable’ is closer to the phrase we want. That organ is a large and mysterious object, filled with as many diverse chambers and atriums as as Michael McGarty’s marvelously elaborate and unfinished wooden set design for this production.  Like the rest of this production this is just all too apt as Uncle Vanya deftly depicts an all too familiar world of everyday ennui, longing, loss and tainted love.

   And yet it’s not unduly gloomy! Yes, I know, those dour Russian plays. An Ira Gershwin lyric reminds us: “ I found more skies of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.” But that lyric starts with the line “with love to lead the way” and that’s the point here. We cannot live fulfilled lives without something to love but it is also that need which is the cause of all our troubles. It is unrequited rapture that leads us to absurd extremes and permanently deferred dreams, causing that vital gab to shrivel.

   Anton Chekov was ahead of his time in recognizing and depicting the absurdity of our existential situation, that’s what makes him vital; productions of his plays don’t succeed when they are too stiff or formal, happily that’s not the case here.

   The Gamm’s production amps up the exasperation felt by these characters while recognizing the sweet rueful wistfulness that each feels underneath. The secret of this success is that this adaptation of Chekov was translated and directed by Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus. Mr. Columbus was proven to be masterful at adapting Russian writers for the American stage, his translation of “Crime and Punishment”, for example, soared in productions both at The Gamm and at Trinity Rep. His adaptation of Vanya” is certainly no exception, the translation here is as clear and concise as any I’ve ever encountered and his direction cuts right to the heart of the matter, forgoing formality utter familiarity suffused with a sense of  uneasy waiting and longing.

   That’s not to say that it ignores the inherent absurdity of these characters trapped in their own lives, fun can be found in a depiction of all too recognizable angst.

   Chekov called his plays comedies, and though there is indeed underlying repair, the needs that fuel these character’s despair make them not only a little ridiculous but recognizably human. The plays of his day always featured some musical accompaniment, to that end contemporary peptones have been reworked with a folksy rustic Russian feel, I won’t spoil these by revealing, but they add considerably to our enjoyment.

   The entire cast shines as well. Artistic Tony Estrella (who directed a fine production of this play some 20 years ago) seems born to play the title role of “Uncle Vanya.” Playing a man who feels utterly stuck in his own life the actor here makes his overwhelming discontent seem not only palpable but engaging. It should be remembered too that the name ‘Vanya’ is a diminutive, he’s not an ‘Uncle John’ but an ‘Uncle Johnnie’ and appropriately there is a little boy’s petulance that marks his ends onstage; a child’s sense of loss along with the adult’s knowledge that he has lost himself. It is a relaxed and masterful performance.

   There is a spoiled fussiness that informs Richard Donelly’s portrayal of Professor Serebryakov, as always Donelly is adept at playing a character you love to hate. Steve Kidd is a wonder as Doctor Astrov, I've never seen so personable a pedantic onstage. He manages to be dry and droll at the same time, ever aware of how dull he must seem to others. He’s delightful, whether he is droning on about conservation or in a final scene with Vanya as two world-weary souls simply sigh away at the futility of their lives.

   Marianna Bassham is marvelous as Yelena, she’s a taut coil ever ready to spring with exasperation as she endures the endless boredom of a long Russian summer. She manages too to make the romantic tension she feels for Astrov a hilarious display of yearning. Rachel Dulude is simply heartbreaking as poor, plain Sonia, her performance is one of pure emotional honesty.

   Indeed, that’s a quality all of the actors here share during their monologues when each seems to drop all presence of ‘character’ and speaking, simply and honestly directly to the audience, as if we were in the cast or these our actors are friends of family, relating their deepest secrets.

   Enough cannot be said about the wonderful set designed by Michael McGarty. The depilated country house is here depicted as a series of ramshackle wooden ramps leading to many roughhewn wooden decks, all festooned with lamps, antiques and knick knacks. Behind this is a painting of clouds over a vast, desolate plane. The effect is of claustrophobia in the middle of nowhere, quite apt for the collection of yearning which we will encounter.

   Sure, “Uncle Vanya” is a play where nobody gets what they want, but this insightful production finds both the humor and the poignancy inherent in that situation. This production reminds us how much Anton Chekov is truly our contemporary, his characters share our deepest concerns, pondering what future generations will think of us, despairing over the despoiling of the planet or simply wondering how we will fill up all the hours in the years that are left to us. Chekov anticipated the theatre of the absurd, 20th century existentialism and Arthur Miller’s contention that even the littlest and most insignificant of men are, essentially, tragic figures. Ultimately, this is a masterful production of one of the greatest plays ever written. Go see it.

“Uncle Vanya” at the Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. Now through Feb. 18. See listings for details.

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