The opening moments of Uncle Vanya take you backtook me back, anywaynot so much to turn-of-the-century Russia as to the days when Arena Stage seemed to do no wrong.
Standing at the center of Ming Cho Lee’s white-canvas stage, amid black metal trees that stretch their sculpted branches skyward, is the most dashing of the company’s once-resident hunks: Tom Hewitt, graying slightly but still every inch the romantic lead as Dr. Astrov. Chatting idly with him is a now-grandmotherly Marcie Hubert, who spent most of the ’60s bringing wit and a faintly acid resonance to Arena’s secondary femmes before taking off for points unknown.
Moments later, a disheveled Charles Janasz stumbles into view, his balding pate an apt tribute to the hair-tearing eccentrics who were his forte in the early ’80sand who still are. He’s Vanya this time, reeling unsteadily from life’s blows even before he settles onto a porch swing that appears to have been tethered not to the rafters but to the stars.
The rhythms adopted by these three are as assured as ever, perhaps because they’re once again serving the vision of Arena founder Zelda Fichandler, who helped begin the regional theater movement almost half a century ago, specifically with the aim of bringing Chekhov to the hinterlands. Now, after an extended absence, Fichandler has returned to an auditorium she helped design (and that now bears her name), reassembled the leading lights of a repertory company that has since splintered, and produced a deliberate throwbackan anniversary production of Vanya, 100 years to the month after its Russian premiere. Apart from the fresh translation by Carol Rocamora commissioned for the event, the evening’s elements are as tried and true as any in Arena’s bag of tricks.
So at first it’s nearly impossible to escape the feeling that a golden glow ofÉwhat?…nostalgia?…warmth?… rightness?Éis bathing the stage as surely as is Nancy Schertler’s amber lighting. That glow fades after a while, as of course it must, for plays come alive only when they happen in the present tense, and in the present tense this Vanya is only fitfully effective. It gets things right, but never ringingly so, and ends up seeming less than the sum of its acting.
Still, there is that. Hewitt and Janasz are both pretty marvelous, the one virile and vaguely clueless about the effect he has on women, the other perceptive but self-defeating and ineffectual. As the talentless, self-absorbed professor whose carping drives the household to distraction, Henry Strozier is precisely as curt, fussy, and superficial as he should be. Melissa King is merely lovely as his siren of a wife, Yelena, though that counts for a lot in this production. Oddly, the one thing she never seems, even for a moment, is what everyone keeps calling her: idle. Her hands are too often in motion, her expressions too plugged in.
Fichandler keeps all these folks, as well as Angel Desai’s lovesick Sofya, bouncing off one another in fairly straightforward ways. Unlike Nick Olcott’s brisk, funny production at Round House a couple of months ago (which used the translation David Mamet developed for the film Vanya on 42nd Street), Arena’s is not a revelatory interpretation or even one that tells you much that you wouldn’t glean from reading the script.
Where the production proves smartest is in details of casting. Besides bringing back the right company members to populate the play, Fichandler has opposed darks and lights, talls and shorts in compelling ways. Astrov and Yelena seem soulmates at least partly because both are slender and possess the same wintry pallor. Hewitt has the chiseled features and ramrod bearing of a toy soldier, King the willowy figure and lace-trimmed chilliness of a porcelain doll. What chance have a stooped, balding Vanya and a dusky, chunky Sofya in such company? (Intriguingly, the two characters Chekhov describes as unattractiveSofya, whose plainness dooms her to spinsterhood, and Waffles, whose name derives from a skin conditionare played by the cast’s only non-Caucasian performers, which comes across less as a comment on race than on the provincialism of the characters and of their perceptions of beauty.)
Also effective are Lindsay W. Davis’ elegantly character-defining costumes. A good part of the reason your eye never strays from Yelena any more than Vanya’s and Astrov’s do is that her gowns and robes swirl in such captivating patterns.
In short, if you’ve not seen Vanya before, this one works reasonably well. If you have seen it, thoughespecially this season at Round Housethere’s no real reason to revisit it here. The production simply isn’t about much other than giving the company what will beif incoming artistic director Molly Smith is serious about concentrating entirely on plays hailing from the Americasits last Chekhovian workout for a while.CP