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Review: ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Hedgerow Theatre

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A group of people are seated at a dinner table. They discuss the weather. Meanwhile, their lives are falling apart. With the revealing use of subtext like this, Anton Chekhov and others introduced modern theatre to the world.

Jessica DalCanton and Jennifer Summerfield. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Jessica DalCanton and Jennifer Summerfield. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Uncle Vanya is one of Chekhov’s most revered works. The quiet desperation of this group of poor Russian aristocrats never fails to move audiences in a masterpiece that remains strikingly relevant. Vanya and his niece Sonya have toiled for years to keep their out-of-the-way countryside estate solvent. Everything stops when the landowner (a retired professor) and his beautiful wife decide to move in. Old resentments boil over and tragedy doesn’t quite happen. This results in a play that makes one laugh and cry at the same moment.

Hedgerow Theatre uses an adaptation by Brian Friel which, in true Irish manner, gives the characters more to say: the impoverished Telegin now recites the entire story of his tragic wedding night; Vanya’s mother Maria is a political pamphleteer; and the country doctor Astrov greatly expands his ecological discussions of how mankind is spoiling the environment. He even keeps bees. The many additions and the conversational tone of the dialogue make the play more pertinent and poignant for modern audiences. Friel has often been referred to as the “modern day Irish Chekhov,” so this addition to the canon is welcome.

This production is Barrymore Recommended, no doubt for the splendid performances of Jennifer Summerfield as Sonya and Jared Reed as Dr. Astrov. The production reaches its high point in the second act scene between the two: she wants to express her love for him, but he is in love with someone else. The dialogue is punctuated with small glances and feeble jokes, and the audience melts. Who hasn’t been in a similar situation?

Summerfield catches the right Chekovian self-ironic tone as she grows in understanding of the absurd tragedy of her life. Reed’s Astrov perfectly underscores the quiet man who suffers in silent solitude. His ironic observations of his condition also bring forward much of Friel’s (and Chekhov’s) humor, most of which is drowned in sadness in this super-serious production. But Astrov’s scenes with Elena (Jessica DalCanton) – the new wife of the landowner, who has all the elegance that the downtrodden Sonya lacks –  don’t quite catch fire for me.

Adam Altman and Jared Reed. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Adam Altman and Jared Reed. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Neither does Vanya’s conflict with the selfish professor who is ruining his life. John Lopes, as the professor, comes off as a befuddled intellectual rather than the tyrant the characters describe. And then there’s Vanya himself, played in an over-excited fashion by Adam Altman. Altman’s Vanya is too brokenhearted and self-aware from the very first monologue; a more gradual build-up of emotion would deliver more convincing character development.

Zoran Kovcic and Penelope Reed score as the older hangers-on, punctuating their performances with pointed observation, while Irma J. Mason is touching as the simple nurse.

Designer Sebastienne Mundheim creates an attractive stage picture, beautifully lighted by Robin Stamey. The set consists of white drapes suspended behind simple furniture. Yet the settings fail to convey a convincing sense of place, as the actors appear to be wandering in a random empty space. The nineteenth century Russian costumes by Sarah Mitchell are beautifully designed and help to ground the production in its era.

Director Kittson O’Neill’s staging charts the ups and downs of Vanya and his destitute extended family unevenly; some of the relationships are more satisfying than others. But her production of this true classic is worth seeing for the way it communicates the joys and sorrows of country life, and for the heartfelt, poignant performances by Summerfield and Reed.

Jennifer Summerfield and Jessica DalCanton. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Jennifer Summerfield and Jessica DalCanton. Photo by Ashley Labonde, Wide Eyed Studios.

Uncle Vanya plays through Sunday, March 5, 2017, at Hedgerow Theatre – 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, PA. For tickets call (610) 565-4211, or purchase them online.

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