The fame of the cast of Classic Stage Company’s Uncle Vanya dwarfs the tiny performance space.
Stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (CC ’99), Peter Sarsgaard, and Denis O’Hare—all renowned for their film work—are mere feet away from the audience in CSC’s tiny off-Broadway black box on 13th Street. Along with the rest of the small cast, these performers do not let down expectations, for they transform their talent on film effectively to the stage in a new translation of Chekhov’s classic play.
O’Hare stars as Ivan Petrovich, or Vanya, a disillusioned, unmarried man who lives on his family estate in Russia, which he has worked his whole life to maintain. He has become increasingly idle in his old age—he is 47, but frequently references his impending death—as he realizes that he has wasted his life away on things that might not really matter.
The bulk of his rage is aimed at the retired Professor Aleksandr Serebryakov (George Morfogen), his late sister’s husband, now remarried to the young and hauntingly beautiful Yelena (Gyllenhaal). Like many other members of his family, he has slaved away for the scholarship of the professor, sending him money and memorizing his manuscripts. But Vanya laments with anguish and anger at himself, as the professor’s work amounts to regurgitation of the scholarship of others, and he writes nothing original, much less groundbreaking.
Yelena’s presence on the estate has brought activity there to a standstill, and in that role Maggie Gyllenhaal exudes such an enchanting aura that one can understand how she drives men mad. Obsessed by her beauty and intrigued by her fidelity to her decrepit husband, Vanya follows her around the house. The doctor Mikhail Astrov (Sarsgaard) pays an unusually high number of visits to the estate, ostensibly to attend to the health of the professor, but it soon becomes clear that he, too, has fallen under the spell of Yelena. He neglects to attend his beloved forest for these visits, even as he explains why the health of the forest might eventually be even more important than that of his patients.
Like Vanya, Yelena is idle, as is her husband. She, however, realizes her futility, while even in his retirement he slaves away in his study until the early hours of the morning. She does nothing and expresses her unhappiness in words, tragic expressions, and through slow, deliberate movements. She wears elaborately tailored dresses that contrast with the plain garments of the rest of the cast, and the dresses are as constricting as her marriage and her mode of life.
Though much of Uncle Vanya is dated—the house calls by the doctor, the horses the characters use for transportation, the function of the estate—the feelings expressed in it are not. The despair and emptiness that plague Vanya, Yelena, and Vanya’s niece Sonya (Mamie Gummer) are timeless. Just so, their self-reflection is a function of their place within the estate and within Russia, but their questioning gets at the very root of human experience.
In setting Uncle Vanya on a stage surrounded on three sides by audience, the director, Austin Pendleton, has made some bold choices. He is unafraid to turn the backs of the actors to the audience, and the cast is strong enough that it seems natural when they are turned away. At the corner of the stage, near the exit, a swing hangs from the ceiling, seemingly serving no literal purpose but myriad dramatic ones. Yelena swings on it, languishing in her discontent, and the doctor steps on it and propels himself offstage in a dramatic exit. Pendleton has thus transformed an utterly ordinary object in to an effective theatrical device.
It is both the strong acting and this universal humanity of Chekhov’s writing that make Uncle Vanya a superlative production.
Uncle Vanya opens Thursday, Feb. 12 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 Easy 13th St.