If the characters in Uncle Vanya were modern Americans, they'd be reading self-help books and conquering their various midlife crises. But because they're Russians of a hundred years ago, their struggles to find meaning in life lead them to despair and vodka. Americans use vodka mostly in various cocktails -- Russians take it neat, no frills. Echo Theatre's production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is a mixed-drink approach to a hard-liquor play. Despite a quartet of excellent performances, the production fails to take the audience fully into the heart of regret and heat of passion that lurks beneath the surface of Chekhov's world.
Chekhov's plays became famous through their productions at the Moscow Art Theatre, where the legendary Stanislavski coached actors in the art of exploring subtext -- the meaning beneath the words, the truth under the text. Director Eric Little finds some of this hidden gold in Uncle Vanya but leaves many veins unmined. Much of the time, the actors rush through the scenes as if there were a prize for finishing first, missing important decisions, interactions and discoveries that are necessary for the play to truly live.
That said, the work of half the cast -- namely Terry Meddows, Sara Renschen, Kelly Schnider and Donna Weinsting -- burns like a crisp shot of Stoli, warming you immediately.
As Vanya, Meddows is perfectly cast. His first entrance is clownlike, a rumpled and hungover Vanya stumbling in to tea. Vanya is in love with Yelena (portrayed by Renschen), the young wife of an elderly professor. Meddows clearly communicates Vanya's overpowering crush on this unattainable woman; any time she's in the room, his breathing changes, his eyes become wistful, his posture seems to soften. When he has to say goodbye to her at the end of the play, his realization that "we'll never see each other again" makes you catch your breath. Meddows takes the audience on Vanya's journey, moving realistically from despair to hope to anger to hopelessness and back to despair.
Renschen plays Yelena with restless boredom. Long before she voices her disgust for Vanya, it's evident in the way she tenses up when he approaches her. Costumed like a precious china doll, she is desired by all but incapable of feeling desire of her own. In contrast, Vanya's niece Sonya (played by Schnider) is full of desire. She wishes she were beautiful, like Yelena. She's in love with Dr. Astrov (Peter Campbell) and gazes hungrily at him, much like Vanya stares at Yelena. In one of the best scenes of the production, Sonya shares her feelings with Yelena over a glass of wine. The women are vulnerable with each other, honest in emotion and action.
Finally, in a small role as Marina, the family's nanny, Donna Weinsting manages to capture the inner life of her character. Whether she's dispensing chamomile tea, comforting the grieving Sonya or dreaming of dumplings, Weinsting's Marina is fully alive in the world of the play.
Surprisingly little has changed in the century since Vanya was written, at least in terms of human interaction. Dr. Astrov opens the play with a contemporary-sounding rant: "Life is boring, it's stupid, it stinks. And people are freaks." The doctor's passionate pleas to stop deforestation and the waste of natural resources could have come from today's Sierra Club pamphlets. Chekhov's politics were ahead of his time, but his final comments on life seem almost medieval. Spurned by their loved ones, Vanya and Sonya have nothing left but their farmwork. Instead of descending into despair, Sonya urges Vanya to embrace work, to endure the day-to-day drudgery in the hope that someday God will have pity on them and grant them rest.
Echo Theatre's production of this challenging classic is staged on a bare-bones set with less-than-adequate lighting. The live sound effects, most notably the guitar music provided by Daniel Higgins, provide a warm touch, and the costumes contribute accurate character details. It's not completely successful, but when it shines, this Vanya makes you proud of American "can-do" spirit.