Vanya on East Fourth Street

The Boomerang Theatre Company presents Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanyat in a straightforward production that aims to let the play speak for itself, with minimal interpretive interference: an important play, well cast, overcomes the shortcomings of a well-meant production. The arrival of Serebryakov (Ed Schultz), a retired art history professor, and his twenty-seven-year-old beautiful wife Yelena (Lauren Kelston) on a country estate managed by Vanya and his niece Sonya upends the balance of their life. Vanya falls hopelessly in love with Yelena, (Yelena: “When you speak to me of love I simply grow numb”). Astrov (Richard Brundage), the district’s doctor, feels that Yelena’s beauty lifts him out of the dull routines of his life and falls in love with her as well. Sonya has long loved Astrov who ignores her. When Vanya surprises Astrov and Yelena in an embrace – and, moments later, the professor proposes to sell the estate to invest the proceeds for a better return, Vanya reaches the end of his tether and attacks the professor.

Serebryakov and Yelena decide to move back into town. In the end the plain, unloved Sonya and the defeated Vanya resume their work, resigned to live with their failures at love and life.

The director, Philip Emeott, has assembled an excellent cast (including the smaller parts of the permanent houseguest Telegin (Bill Weeden), the nurse Marina (Sara Ann Parker) and Voynitskaya, Vanya’s mother (Dorores McDougal). His respect for the text leads to a naturalistic style suggested by the first production. Crickets, birds, sounds of horses trotting in the yard, costumes that approximate the Russia of the 1890s set the atmosphere. But then he encourages his actors to perform in a frantic, overly emotional style, with large gestures and a hurried pace better suited to farce.

The empty picture frames on the walls - a symbolist cliché that I have seen it in several Vanya productions – lack justification in the text; having actors break the fourth wall in several of the soliloquies jars the audience for no dramatic gain.

While the spare unit set works well, lighting and costumes are just serviceable with many missed opportunities. The music choices seem arbitrary – Beethoven’s Ghost trio, a twentieth century guitar piece, a piece of music that, I assume, the sound designer composed present a stylistic mix that is puzzling, while on the other hand, the guitar playing of Telegin is well-conceived and adds life and humor to the production.

However, this rendition Uncle Vanya, in its final moments, distills the meandering, almost plot- and action-less story into the poignant, existentialist contemplation of loneliness, pain, suffering, and the willingness to go on living in the face of a life that has lost all meaning and promise for happiness. And director Philip Emeott has the good sense to leave the actors and the text alone for long enough to allow this essential moment to unfold.

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