Listening to the lines of Anton Checkov, few would disagree he is a writer for our times: “Millions of trees have perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever.”
He wrote the 4-act play Uncle Vanya in the 1890s, but its message of environmental warning is even more relevant today than it was then. Few small theatre companies produce plays older than a few decades, but this one is currently being performed at Austin City Theatre, a rare opportunity to see a sterling example of a 19th century Russian playwright.
Be prepared for a psychologically tormented experience (“It’s a nice day to hang oneself,” proclaims Uncle Vanya), leavened by a few amusing lines in this adaptation of the original by Rod Mechem that often follows the words Checkov wrote. When Helena, wife of Professor Serebryakov, screams that men “are possessed by the devil of destruction,” she is in this production speaking the words Checkov wrote. But in Helena’s famous soliloquy in Act 3, Checkov wrote nothing about her having “mermaid blood.” While this is not an improvement on the original, Mechem’s line that “autumn blooms are the fuel of soft sorrow” is inspired.
The play is permeated by destructive influences, many of them regulated by love or lust. The beautiful Helena, played with just the right touch of insouciance by Brianna Ripkowski, is desired not only by her husband, but the country doctor played by Andrew Fisher, and with agonised passion by Uncle Vanya. Beau Paul in the title role also appeared in the Austin City Theatre production of Christmas Belles, which I reviewed in December 2017. To this role he brings pathos, love and violence: faultless and impressive.
Fisher, who could double for Ethan Hawke, gets to spout the only elevated lines of the play when he talks about saving the forests, water, and animal habitats. His portrayal of the self-confessed malcontent medical doctor is superb.
Each member of the cast delivers an excellent performance. Julia Salas as the daughter of the professor gets to lament her unattractive visage (which is really difficult as the actress is not ugly!), Laura King as the old nurse provides an oasis of comfort when needed; Jo Rake as Vanya’s mother is not as absent-minded as she lets on; Matt Flynn give us a sobering look at what old professors have to endure; and Mike Dellens puts a brave face on the life of a landowner who now lives as a servant.
Checkov gives us a cynical worldview with tensions between characters that often overlap to create more tension. This production at Austin City Theatre is very much worth the effort to see and appreciate. Just don’t expect to leave the theatre whistling a happy tune!
Performances continue until Feb. 4, 2018.
Visit the website for details: citytheatreaustin.org
Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski
for my review of Christmas Belles, follow this link: