This Way Out: The Three Faces Of Uncle Vanya
No one planned a Chekhov festival, but three sequential adaptations of Uncle Vanya in six months, all of them raising the question of what can be done to end the suffering of its author's unhappy characters, is too much of a confluence not to go unnoticed.
Chekhov's 1896 drama presents us with Vanya Voynitsky and his niece, Sonya, both of whom have dedicated their lives to managing the family property, located in a rural region where the sole neighbors are the progressive-minded Mikhail Astrov and the down-on-his-luck Ilya Telyegin (whose acne-scarred complexion has earned him the unflattering nickname of "Waffles"). The sole comfort of these estate caretakers is the knowledge that their solitary toil allows Sonya's father, Professor Alexander Serebryakov, to pursue his studies. Their faith is shattered when their paragon descends on the household and proceeds to boss his benefactors with the carefree impunity of a spoiled child. Exacerbating the tensions are Sonya's secret crush on Mikhail, himself smitten with the professor's young second wife, Yelena—in whom Vanya sees the youth now forever lost to him.
Aaron Posner's Life Sucks—produced by Lookingglass Theatre in 2016—transfers the intrigue to the present day at a faux-rustic lodge in a remote vacation destination during the off-season. As the afflictions arising from stifled emotions grow more strained, the frustrated occupants of this isolated outpost reach over the theater's "fourth wall" to the audience, imploring playgoers to advise them of remedies for their spiritual paralysis, but eventually concluding that the only solution is to accept their disappointments and move on.
By contrast, Annie Baker's approach to the burdens of privilege in pre-revolutionary Russian society is to render playgoers as miserably indecisive as Vanya and his kin, in order to replicate the empathy that playgoers of the period would have felt, seeing themselves and their troubles portrayed on the stage. In order to recreate the identifying connection for the Goodman Theatre production opening in March, her adaptation reduces the physical distance dividing actor and audience, while adhering to the original Uncle Vanya, updating only the language for a more colloquial tone.
The personae in Lavina Jadhwani's Vanya (or, "That's Life")—currently playing under the auspices of the Rasaka Theatre Company—also forge their own escape route, but only after lengthy self-examination conducted under our scrutiny. Thus, the narrative reverses itself, beginning with the last scene of Chekhov's text and backtracking, with each character already aware of the sorrowful outcome and watching for the pivotal moment when it could have been prevented.
Precipitating this analysis is an angry Vanya fed up with his own weak-willed passivity. When a reluctant Mikhail shrinks from re-enacting the scene where he fails to recognize the depth of Sonya's affection, Vanya orders him to play it out, so that this time, the forlorn damsel may confess her feelings, instead of merely hinting at them, thus freeing both to make a fresh start. Even the pompous Professor gains insight into his own folly in expecting everyone to listen to him as his students do.
"Uncle Vanya—concerned, as it is, with broken hearts, family relationships and the regrets associated with midlife crisis—continues to be one of the most unceasingly relevant of plays." declares Rasaka Artistic Director Kamal Hans. Dramaturg Margaret Boughman ventures to explain why, "An audience's response to a play is usually formulated at the end of the performance, when they look over the events leading up to the final moment and consider how everything could have gone differently." By allowing Chekhov's characters to exercise a similar hindsight (prodded by the irreverent song of the guitar-strumming Ilya titled "What the F*ck Was I Thinking?"), Jadhwani affirms the stubborn optimism underlying the melancholy of the moment.
"No matter how many times their story is told, onstage or in memory, they never lose hope." Boughman reminds us, "For over a century now, Vanya and Sonya, despite their pain, have vowed to work, to soldier on, to endure, perpetually advancing toward realization of their desires."
Vanya (or, "That's Life") runs at the Edge Theater through February 3.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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