Cyrilla Baer, Andrew Garman, Mamie Gummer, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Delphi Harrington, George Morfoges, Denis O’Hare, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis Zorich
What a season for Chekhov! After the New York opening and closing of the Royal Court Theatre’s production of The Seagull on Broadway and the Bridge Project’s current The Cherry Orchard at BAM, the streak of luminescent New York productions of Anton Chekhov’s plays continues with a forceful Uncle Vanya helmed by director Austin Pendleton at the Classic Stage Company’s intimate space on 13th Street.
With a two-story wooden house set designed by Santo Loquasto, Pendleton’s staging of Vanya feels more intimate and engaging than the two aforementioned takes on Chekhov, partly because of the engaging way the unit set allows the audience to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
On the thrust stage of the Classic Stage Company’s theatre, the audience literally surrounding the playing space, the actors seem like human specimen in a tattered Russian dollhouse of sorts, enacting their various cruelties and kindnesses for an audience’s consumption, lit by the glow of candles and moonlight by Jason Lyons.
Uncle Vanya, which includes the typical romantic entanglements and real-estate woes that are Chekhov’s thematic fascinations, focuses on a rural Russian household after the return of its ailing patriarch Serebryakov and his new, younger wife Yelena from the city. The estate, which had been run by his late wife’s mother Voynitskaya, his former son-in-law Voynitsky (“Vanya”), and his daughter Sofya in his absence, has spiraled downward from its status as a place of productivity into a state of listlessness, with the preening Yelena at the center of its newfound sloth.
The nearby Dr. Astrov, a kind and earnest man, begins visiting the house with increased frequency because of Yelena’s presence there, his fascination with her triggering the emotional entanglements to come. Eventually, a love quadrangle emerges. Yelena, who professes to remain faithful to Serebryakov despite his advanced age and illness, is pursued by both Astrov and Vanya, while the innocent young Sofya is secretly, stubbornly infatuated with Astrov.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Sarsgaard, whose Trigorin was the weak link in the Broadway Seagull here gives a confident, neurotic performance as doctor-slash-forester Astrov, a character in the same vein as Trigorin. Gyllenhaal is open and airy as the “idle” Yelena, and O’Hare is his usual neurotic, over-the-top self as Vanya, who has wasted his life in the service of others.
The standout, however, is not among the three big stars, but rather the talented young Mamie Gummer, who, as Sofya is vulnerable and raw and totally sympathetic. As she attempts to wheedle out of Astrov any sense of romantic affection toward her, she flits her fingers along the edge of the piano on which she serves him wine and cheese. When he leaves her dejected, she faces heavenward, her face a muddled ball of anguish and possibility.
There are times when this production threatens to hurtle into emotional overdrive, tears and laughter in abudance – a criticism many will likely hurtle at it – but the actors are so fully committed that their characters’ lives never feel less than authentic in the moment. Because the audience is so very much a part of the action, our gaze present at all corners of the space, we can’t help but imagine ourselves in Chekhov’s play. Isn’t that the purpose of drama, to hold a mirror up to life?