Review: ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Quintessence Theatre Group

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There’s something seriously wrong with this house.

That’s what one character says early in Quintessence Theatre Group’s new production of Uncle Vanya, and boy, is she right. Uncle Vanya is set in a large country house where everyone seems to be in a funk, affected by a crippling, dispiriting malaise. But there’s one thing about this latest version of Chekhov’s classic that’s bursting with energy: the marvelous English-language adaptation by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. It makes Quintessence’s production worth seeing.

Steven Wright. Photo by Shawn May.

Steven Wright. Photo by Shawn May.

Baker doesn’t update the play; it’s still set in Russia around 1899, when Chekhov wrote it. But Baker’s language has a contemporary feel, using modern American colloquialisms (like “clean and sober” and “don’t be rude”) without resorting to easily-dated slang. The dialogue’s lack of primness gives it a crackling vitality. And Baker’s sly use of dark humor – Vanya describes the climate as “perfect weather for hanging yourself” – gives an ironic, acid edge to a story that can seem fussy and formal in lesser hands.

The title character of Uncle Vanya is a man who has spent twenty-five years as the caretaker for a Russian country estate controlled by his brother-in-law, a pompous professor. Now things have changed: the professor is old and ill, and he’s planning a big change in his life. The professor also has a new young wife whose beauty bewitches most of the men in sight, including Vanya. Before the play is over, hearts will be broken, voices will be raised, and gunshots will be fired – yet Vanya and his loyal, loving, and downtrodden niece Sonya vow to find a way to soldier on.

Chekhov’s use of penetrating psychological insights to define his characters was groundbreaking in the late 19th Century, and the ways in which the characters’ depths are explored are still pretty astonishing and dramatically rewarding. True, Uncle Vanya can get mighty depressing at times – Baker’s dialogue includes lines like “Life is pretty boring” and “He completely exhausts me,” and when you hear people complain repeatedly about how bored and frustrated they are, it’s hard not to feel bored and frustrated yourself.

But director Alexander Burns’ production generally maintains a tone that’s more reflective than mournful. It’s staged in the round, with the actors within close range of the audience; Burns’ set design uses just some understated furniture and minimal decoration. The production’s intimacy is a plus, but its pace could be quicker at times; the show runs nearly three hours, and some of the longer speeches drag on and on.

Julia Frey and Kevin Bergen. Photo by Shawn May.

Julia Frey and Kevin Bergen. Photo by Shawn May.

The actors excel at exploring various states of extreme emotion. As Vanya, Steven Wright maintains a world-weary tone for much of the evening, but explodes with gratifying rage at key moments. Jessica M. Johnson brings finely tuned melancholy to Vanya’s niece Sonya, while Kevin Bergen adds a surprising amount of venom to the role of Astrov, the jaded (and, in this version, surprisingly crude) doctor whom Sonya longs for. As the reluctant temptress Yelena, Julia Frey certainly looks the part – stretched out languorously on a settee, posing like a fashion model in her every movement – but plays the role with an undercurrent of knowing bitterness that belies her image.

Dan Kern is suitably stuffy as the oblivious professor who antagonizes Vanya. Susan Chase and David Blatt have some terrific comic moments in supporting roles. Yet Rosalyn Jamal seems oddly detached in her role as Vanya’s mother. Daniel Ison might have little to do as a servant, but he makes a big impression when he sits down at a piano during scene changes to play Randy Redd’s poignant score.

John Burkland’s shadowy lighting design helps to create a properly gloomy atmosphere. And Christina Lorraine Bullard’s costumes add a modern sheen without being distracting. Sleek Yelena wears elegant gowns; earthy Sonya wears overalls; and the men deal with the summer heat by wearing handsome, elegant linen suits that straddle multiple eras. These costumes are, like Baker’s adaptation and Chekhov’s story, thoughtful and timeless.

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, including an intermission.

Steven Wright , Julia Frey, Susan Chase, Jessica M. Johnson, and Dan Kern. Photo by Shawn May.

Steven Wright , Julia Frey, Susan Chase, Jessica M. Johnson, and Dan Kern. Photo by Shawn May.

Uncle Vanya plays through June 18, 2017, at Quintessence Theatre Group, performing at The Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy), in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.

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