Uncle Vanya

Written on May 23rd, 2016

Family Members and Other Moochers

Uncle Vanya, now playing at Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a fresh translation of the 1897 play.  And the language is refreshing.  Annie Baker came up with this 2012 version by going back to a literal translation along with the original Russian, and putting their colloquialisms into North American English of today.  Sometimes the words actually jar the audience, as they are meant to – 19th century Russians talking about moochers and creeps.

But while the language is refreshing, the story pulls us into a depressed and miserable world – again, as it is meant to.

Director Jackie Maxwell, in her last season as Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival, has created a brilliant production of Uncle Vanya.  Each character is perfectly cast and brilliantly acted.  The audience, in the intimate Court House Theatre, is pulled onto the stage and into the lives of this wretched, dysfunctional family and their hangers-on.Uncle Vanya

Vanya (also called by the more formal Ivan Petrovich) and his niece Sonya are managing their family’s decrepit and aging country estate, barely making ends meet.  They support Vanya’s mother (Sonya’s grandmother), their elderly nanny and an old gentleman whose nickname is Waffles because of his bad complexion, as well as servants.  A nearby doctor, Astrov, also spends time at the estate.

Into their orderly, daily struggle comes the husband of Vanya’s long-dead sister who is also Sonya’s father.  He is a pompous and pretentious professor, who expects to be called “Your Excellency”.  With him, he brings his new, much younger, beautiful wife Yelena. The estate is also supporting this couple, with Vanya giving them a monthly payment.

Vanya adored his late sister, and at one time respected this well-educated brother-in-law.  But he has come to realize that the professor is an arrogant snob who’s not all that intelligent.

Neil Barclay is mesmerizing as the unhappy Uncle Vanya.  His feeling of futility is palpable.  Marla McLean gives us a stoic yet hurting Sonya, who plugs along, hiding her sorrow, despite her lost love.  She hasn’t yet reached the level of Vanya’s depression, but we feel she is headed there.

Patrick McManus as Astrov, the doctor, plays the role so well we forget he is acting.  His language and mannerisms are perfectly natural.  McManus makes us take notice of the unassuming Astrov, especially when revealing his interest in ecology.  (Credit goes to original playwright Chekov who even talks about climate change in the 1890s.)

Moya O’Connell is perfect as the stunning Yelena.  We believe her when she says she was once interested in the professor, but now is bored with her life and the banal conversations.  She seems both flirtatious and sincere at the same time.  O’Connell effortlessly brings a breath of fresh air into this otherwise stagnant world.

The emotional depth that is created by these four actors and their characters’ infectious uselessness feels like a heavy weight on the stage.  This is the best drama I have seen at the Shaw Festival.

We leave the theatre feeling Vanya and Sonya’s pain, the Doctor’s loss and Yelena’s entrapment.  We are exhausted and drained.

Uncle Vanya continues in repertoire at The Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until September 11.  For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.

Photo: Sonya (Marla McLean) the niece in Uncle Vanya.  Photo by Emily Cooper.

Uncle Vanya
By Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Annie Baker
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Performed by Neil Barclay, Moya O’Connell, Marla McLean and Patrick McManus et al.
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 1 to September 11, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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