I was told as a student that you can’t truly understand Chekhov until you are forty. I do not think this is categorically true, but I know that I absolutely did not get Chekhov at the age of 20, and at each encounter with the foundational Russian playwright since then, his stories of frustration, pain, and regret have made more and more sense.
The Verona Studio’s production of Uncle Vanya advanced my appreciation of Chekhov yet again. The plot revolves around the disruption that comes to a country estate when the Professor (the master of the house) and his attractive second wife take up residence, but really it is the story of everyone falling in love with the wrong person, so it’s a tale that is timeless. The sub-themes of environmentalism and body image feel especially modern. While some of the characters’ complaints feel very much like the trivialities of “first world problems,” they are also a reminder that the great enemy of life is not unhappiness, but boredom.
Director Randall Tosh takes a traditional approach to staging the play. He makes full advantage of the intimate space in the Reed Opera House to bring the audience inside the lives of these thwarted characters. The relatively recent translation by Paul Schmidt (1998) is highly accessible to a modern audience.
Acting throughout the principal cast is strong, and, indeed, this is the reason to see the production. Joe Botkin brings out Vanya’s frustration and rage at his own choices. “All I want is a new life!” he screams. Is that too much for anyone to ask? He is matched by Rachel Zoerner’s Yelena, the second wife, who is more self-consciously trapped than anyone. Seth Allen showcases his range and precision as Dr. Astrov, whose pain, desire, and indifference become palpable. Special praise goes to Maggie Dayton as the nurse, Marina; Dayton brings life and energy to an otherwise small role.
There is something to be said for taking a classic play and playing it straight, and doing it well. But many of the choices in this production feel overly safe. For The Verona Studio, which thrives on risk, I wanted a bit more. Their recently announced season for 2015–2016 (Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley, St. Nicholas by Conor McPherson, True West by Sam Shepard, and Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig) promises excitement to come.
Uncle Vanya runs through May 23.
Elsewhere in the Mid-Valley
• Always Patsy Cline, a musical revue, at Keizer Homegrown Theatre. Opens May 14.
• The Wizard of Oz, Albany Civic Theatre. Plays through May 23.
• Funny Money, at Aumsville Community Theatre. Opens May 22.
• Improv Comedy and Stand-up at Capitol City Theatre. Every Fri & Sat.
“‘They seek him here, they seek him there,” Jay Gipson-King is a local educator and theatre artist, and Salem Weekly’s Salem Pimpernel. Keep up with Jay and see the full list of area auditions and performances at facebook.com/SalemTheatreNetwork.