by Shirley Lorraine
Family Upset Looms in Uncle Vanya
Ah, Uncle Vanya. Considered one of Anton Chekhov’s great masterpieces of theater, the production now playing at the Santa Paula Theater Center is a slightly updated adaptation by Conor McPherson. Little seems changed, save for periodic references to more twentieth century concerns such as climate change, reforestation and the medical profession. And, of course, the addition of a few F-bombs, the addition of which added nothing except a disconnect with the references to turn of the previous century.
Despite this jarring reminder of our current consciousness, the play remains timeless in nature. It is, perhaps, the origin of the “play about nothing,” a format borrowed freely by Jerry Seinfeld. The location is a bit hazy. Originally set in Russia, now possibly Ukraine, the setting is anywhere of a remote nature. Every so often a hint of an unidentifiable accent was heard but was not pronounced enough to associate specifically.
The action, or more precisely, inaction, takes places in a country house maintained by relatives of a recently returned member of an extended family. Taking up a tiresome residence, the Professor settles in to write a multitude of opinion pamphlets which, it is suspected, no one actually reads. The Professor demands central attention, bringing along his much younger and quite fetching supremely bored wife who is then sought after by several of the parties involved.
The play explores unrequited love, misplaced passions, the daily dreariness felt by Uncle Vanya, the primary caretaker of the property for the last 20 years, family interactions and conflicts. Everyone seems to be in a state of ennui, merely existing from day to day. The real drama begins when the Professor announces he plans to sell the house. Emotional chaos ensues. Throughout, the characters provide a panoply of comic relief in their desperate struggle to maintain their lifestyles.
Casting by Director David Ralphe is simply brilliant. Each of the actors melt into their roles as second skin. The key character, beleaguered and underappreciated Uncle Vanya, is played by Brian Robert Harris, to near perfection. Yelena, the beautiful young bride, played by Jessi May Stevenson, provides volumes of soulful depth in a mere disdainful glance or a slight movement. Ron Feltner as the alcoholic Dr. Astrov is forceful. Nancy Solomons Barker channels Sophia of the Golden Girls in her portrayal of the aged Nana. She has many quite amusing lines. Tom Hall is marvelous in his persona of the Professor, a man oblivious to the contributions and needs of others.
Erin Hollander plays Sonja, a young girl who assists in the house maintenance and yearns for a relationship she will never have, handling the role beautifully. L.J. Noel and Allan Noel complete the cast as Vanya’s mother and Telegin, adding to the comedy immeasurably.
The play is extremely well done. Casting is outstanding. The set designed by Nick Caisse is simply stunning.
Uncle Vanya continues through September 25. Reservation (805) 525-4645, or www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.