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There is immense potential for inertia in any production of a play by Anton Chekhov. Morose Russians slogging about in their country houses and agonizing about their alienation aren’t a recipe for pop-cultural thrills. Indeed, I had a hard time finding someone to accompany me to the performance I attended. But the discriminating scholar of Russian literature who came along was delightedas well as, seemingly, the rest of the audienceby the Quotidian Theatre Company’s meticulous and confident production of Uncle Vanya, a heartbreaking sunset of a play presented in a fine new translation by artistic director Jack Sbarbori.
Chekhov subtitled Uncle Vanya “Scenes From Country Life in Four Acts,” but it’s the interior country that’s explored in his 1897 play. Desire and denial are the order of the day for Ivan Petrovich Voynitskiy, the titular Uncle Vanya, who manages a dilapidated estate with his uncomely niece, Sonya. Together, they support a number of characters in similar states of social congelation, until their quiet melancholia is disrupted by the visit of Sonya’s father, the prominent, self-involved academic who owns the estate, and his lissome second wife, Yelena. Depressed and gorgeous, Yelena provokes the romantic aspirations of both a colorful local doctor, Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, who is loved hopelessly by Sonya, and the seriously outmatched Vanya.
From his first moments on stage, tussling with a sweater, Steve LaRocque’s Vanya provides a dramatic center for a play whose characters swing between emotional spasms and barely concealed shame. LaRocque’s heady mixture of bravado and distress is reason enough to see the show. Imagine a Moscow-born Spalding Gray condemned to live out his days in a dreary dacha and you’ll get some idea of this Vanya’s wry, frustrated wit and puffery.
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LaRoque receives plenty of competent assistance from Nick Sampson, whose brash Dr. Astrov is conjured up as a proto-eco-warrior, musing about the destruction of the forests, pollution, and climate changes, and advocating for a return to pastoral simplicity. (Chekhov loved to reference his artistic contemporaries; although Dostoevsky is never directly mentioned, his looming presence on the Russian cultural landscape is acknowledged through this character, who is modeled not just on the writer but on the many young Russians who seized passionately upon his philosophy during the period.) Norman Seltzer, who portrays the arrogant, clueless professor who’s returned to his estate, is fabulously blithe about his position as head of the family pecking order, and he’s a perfect foil to Vanya with his envious and impossible ambitions. Michele Osherow’s Sonya looks Russian enough, but her dark prettiness undermines the character’s specified unattractiveness. She also shares with Stephanie Mumford’s Yelena a tendency toward breathy and actressy mannerisms, but both players gradually asserted themselves during the performance I saw. The supporting cast captures the necessary balance of warmth and remoteness Chekhov requires to effect audience attachment to the characters and to emphasize the chill of their climate and their personalities.
Chekhov’s etching of these complicated interpersonal geometries is famously unflinching. Trained as a doctor himself, the playwright created each scene almost clinically, examining and dissecting characters and situations as if his pen were a scalpel, but never losing sight of the humanity demanded by his tasks. Directed with understated aplomb and sure momentum by Sbarbori and Sharon Dodd, the Quotidian production is elegantly rendered in its costuming and design. Sonya’s dresses become gradually more severe over the course of the show as her romantic hopes wane.
Although no less than three Vanyas have been mounted in the D.C. area over the last few years, Quotidian’s charged production of the play is significant enough to merit a close look. The company selected its self-effacing name to reflect its commitment to the naturalist works produced by playwrights such as Chekhov and Horton Foote, and it accomplishes the task with evident relish (if, indeed, “relish” is the precise word for touches such as gloomy cello music and convincing offstage gunfire). The Quotidian folks take pains to focus on Chekhov’s deceptively simple prose, performing it with admirable restraint.
The writing in Vanya is timeless, and what it lacks in splash, it makes up for with emotional resonance. When Astrov wonders aloud”Those people who live a hundred years from nowwill they remember us kindly? Will they remember us?”one’s presence in the theater suddenly seems less idle. While hardly groundbreaking, Quotidian’s production is a respectful and well-wrought take on a classic that does justice to its enduring and endearing title character. CP