Review: Uncle Vanya by City Theatre Company
by David Glen Robinson
Anton Chekhov’s great play Uncle Vanya has just opened at City Theatre on the east side. City has made a worthy production of it, without frills, updatings, or Russian accents. The production is a straight, dialogue-heavy play that emphasizes the hopes, fears, and joys of its characters.
The four-act play dwells on Russian landed gentry and lower classes living on a family hereditary estate in agricultural southern Russia. As vast as the skies over the steppes is the pervasive Russian ennui; it is clear there has been no excitement since Borodino and Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The Revolution lies decades in the future (the play premiered in 1899). Uncle Vanya (played by Beau Paul) is nothing but miserable and seemingly ill-used in his unwanted career running the estate. Family members visit and mingle with denizens of the property and the country all about.
This setting is merely the canvas for Chekhov’s multiple paintings of humanity and all our foibles. His vaunted love of the species is well-deserved; he is kind to the worst characters. His tongue-in-cheek humor is also on display, as when characters swear off drinking forever and then unthinkingly raise a toast to seal the vow.
Uncle Vanya plays out in drinking, multidirectional lust, and Vanya’s unending suffering. The estate visitors come and go, pivoting on Vanya’s third act, highly provoked, violent meltdown. Chekhov never wavers from depicting Vanya’s misery and considerable but totally unacknowledged talents, all faithfully conveyed by City Theatre’s Beau Paul as Vanya. The character of Uncle Vanya is a kind of literary precursor to It’s A Wonderful Life’s George Bailey but without the happy, happy ending.
After Vanya, the principal character is Astrov, the country doctor, played by Andrew C. Fisher. The content of the character is eerily similar to that of Franz Kafka’s country doctor in his short story The Country Doctor. The status and role of the country doctor in peasant society in Russia and Eastern Europe are singular; he is both revered and feared. Wielding the tools and education of Victorian science, the doctor knew intimately every member of the society and held the power of life and death over most.The country doctor stood in the same position as the shaman in prescientific societies. Chekhov imbues his country doctor with all the mysterious qualities of the real-life figures and allows him to voice at length the theme of environmental decay that runs through all four acts. The doctor is also the wildest drunk in the show. The mysteriousness of the doctor and his messages is sparked quickly in one throwaway line: “The peasants are grazing their cattle in my forests.” Perhaps it is the iambic lilt of the line or its condensation of the themes of the play, but thereafter one’s mental images become heavily abstracted and it seems as though the play proceeds to the end exactly as it must. The playwright has laid the groundwork of his world so brilliantly and so thoroughly that it seems as though the thoughtful viewer can predict the play’s outcome.
City Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya is just good enough to convey this glasslike transparency. The cast, despite a few problems with volume, puts in a creditable performance, proving themselves in the precise timing and dynamism of the third act.
Anton Chekhov, like his contemporaries Ibsen and Shaw, excelled at illuminating on stage the tortures of the mind. And this took place pre-angst-consciousness, pre-Age of Anxiety, pre-existentialism, and pre-environmental consciousness.Freud was just then developing the art and science of psychotherapy.The healing pathways Chekhov could offer his characters were spiritual and emotional. Why neither of those avenues was trod by Uncle Vanya is a source of continuing fascination in modern theatre.
Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov at the City Theatre is recommended to anyone who collects anthology plays witnessed on stage. Uncle Vanya runs Thursdays - Sundays until January 28, 2018.
January 12 - February 04, 2018
3823 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78722
January 12 – February 4, 2018. Thursdays - Saturdays, 8:00 pm. Sundays, 3:00 pm.
The City Theatre 3823 Airport Blvd. Austin 78722.
General Seating $15. Front/2nd Row Reserved $20-25. Thursday all seats $10.
Tickets at the door $20. Group and student discounts.
CTC offers its discount ticket program with $10 Thursday seats and $12 student seats for any show. The ticket discount is available throughout the 2017 - 2018 season.