Professor Serebryakov (David Howey) and his young wife Yelena (Sarah Sanford) return to their country home and their odd behaviors disrupt the otherwise monotonous country lifestyle, almost to the point of (self) destruction. Each character battles with their own internal struggle, be it unfulfilled love, unrealized aspirations, or just complete boredom. Intertwined story lines and beautifully delivered comedy by the entire cast make this Russian classic rich with inner contemplation and surprisingly current tones.
While I was in the audience, a lovely woman asked me if the President of the United States would be making an appearance on a popular late-night television program later that night. I answered in the affirmative, settled back into my seat, and began to watch this phenomenal production.
As the play progressed and as I become more engrossed into the characters in this Russian country house (simple and appropriately designed by Meghan Jones), I began to think more and more of that lady’s interest in the President’s television appearance as well as the overall media and commercial coverage of the upcoming mid-term election. Then I really started to empathize with these folks on stage. With all of the mud-slinging, congressional inaction, corruption, fear-mongering, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, passionate ignorance, and nonsensical political rhetoric, I often find myself asking the question ‘how on earth did we get like this’? Thoughts of unemployment, debt, losing ones home, threats of violence, politically-driven hatred, and the overall inhuman way we treat our fellow humans, can weigh heavily on the minds of level headed, reasonable people. Eventually, like the characters in Vanya, we become anesthetized by the weight of these oppressors and the seemingly unending hopelessness of our very existence. Are we wasting our time? Do we ever have a chance of becoming our best selves? Did we miss out on something? As noted by the director Kathryn MacMillan in her program notes, ‘…we’re stuck where we are, in the present, to live in the past or imagine a different future leads to resentment, estrangement, and despair.’ This rings dead true for Chekhov and his characters, and I think I’m going to take this message whenever I think about our own, very real situation.
There are many remarkably contemporary themes that echo throughout the play. Discussions of over-development and the depletion of natural resources, for one, were directly argued by the country doctor, Astrov (brilliantly played by Charlie DelMarcelle). It’s worth noting that Chekhov kept the company of many artists, including painter Isaac Levitan, and I encourage you to view some of Levitan’s Russian landscape work.
Now, above all, this play is funny. These-people-are-going-nuts-and-they-know-it type funny. The humor within the play is the antidote to the dismal tenor established by the characters – it connects us to our humanity. The title character Uncle Vanya (played by Lantern veteran actor and director Peter DeLaurier) delivers some of the best bits, even at the height of his personal angst.
Surprisingly, what this play really accomplishes is not a sense of dismal hopelessness, but instead, it propels us to recognize that everything matters ‘in the now.’
For Sonya, the rest she spoke of in the final moments of the show were, of course, the rest of eternal sleep. Although our social and political turmoil may never end, come November third, I’ll be thankful for a reprieve from those completely idiotic campaign commercials.
by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Mike Poulton
Directed by Kathryn MacMillan
October 21 – November 21, 2010
Lantern Theater Company
St. Stephen’s Theater
10th & Ludlow Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107