This 116-Year Old Russian Play Pulses With 21st-Century Urgency

Linda Park is engrossing as the beautiful Yelena who sets off loads of trouble in Uncle Vanya at Antaeus Theatre CompanyEXPAND
Linda Park is engrossing as the beautiful Yelena who sets off loads of trouble in Uncle Vanya at Antaeus Theatre Company
Karianne Flaathen

Boredom is contagious in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, now receiving an energetic revival at the Antaeus Company. The locus of the ennui is Yelena (Linda Park), the gorgeous, restless young wife of Serebryakov (Lawrence Pressman), an elderly professor who has retired to his family’s provincial estate.

“You infected us all with your uselessness,” complains Astrov (Jeffrey Nordling), a rugged country doctor who all but abandons his patients to bask in Yelena’s beauty. He’s a proto-environmentalist and a vegetarian, and one of two men infatuated with her.

In the hands of a less able cast and director, all this lethargy and squandered potential could have led to a production that engulfs the audience in torpor as well, as plenty of dismal Chekhovian stagings prove. But Robin Larsen’s lively staging reveals the humor and urgency of this 116-year-old play. She is aided by playwright Annie Baker’s contemporary translation, crafted from a literal Russian translation, which lends warmth and relevance to the language.

Jeffrey Nordling wows as the heartbreakingly rugged vegetarian country doctor obsessed with Yelena.EXPAND
Jeffrey Nordling wows as the heartbreakingly rugged vegetarian country doctor obsessed with Yelena.
Karianne Flaathen

This Vanya resonates, in part thanks to Baker’s work, with jarringly modern concerns.

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Vanya (Don R. McManus) is the erstwhile brother-in-law of Yelena’s husband, and the play’s most pathetic figure. Unlike Astrov, Vanya causes no stirrings in Yelena’s heart. After 25 years of working the estate like a peasant to finance the professor’s life in the city, his proletariat admiration for the family scholar has hardened to contempt.

He has no wife, no children, and no intellectual legacy, despite mental power he claims could have allowed him to become “a Schopenhauer or a Dostoevsky.” Then there’s Vanya’s niece and Serebryakov's daughter from his first marriage, Sonya (Rebekah Tripp), self-sufficient and practical, in love these six years with Astrov, who barely notices her. 

Apart from Astrov’s rants about the degradation of the Russian forests, we hear class turmoil in Vanya’s disgust that Serebryakov has never raised his salary, and in his fury when the professor reveals his plan to sell the estate out from under Vanya and Sonya in order to purchase a vacation home in Finland. Where will they live?

Yet many of the play’s key moments, serious though they are, tremble on the brink of hilarity.

When McManus (sharing the role with Arye Gross; all parts are partner-cast) finally locates the passion that has escaped Vanya for so long, he erupts in an enraged gesture so grandiose in its futility that the scene slips briefly into farce.

Park’s Yelena exhibits operatic indifference, her self-absorption never more comically absolute than when Sonya suggests ways she might occupy herself. And poor Sonya’s trust in her step-mother is so misplaced, it’s difficult not to muster a pitying laugh when Yelena’s offer to appraise the doctor’s feelings for her step-daughter leads, as it must, to a declaration of love for herself. 

Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is receiving a lively staging from director Robin Larsen at the Antaeus Theatre Company. Above, Rebekah Tripp and Don R. McManus.
Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is receiving a lively staging from director Robin Larsen at the Antaeus Theatre Company. Above, Rebekah Tripp and Don R. McManus.
Karianne Flaathen

But Larsen never allows these scenes to lose their poignancy. McManus and Tripp are especially powerful in the climactic encounter, reeling from their separate heartaches, as Serebryakov’s plan to dismantle their life’s work slowly worms into their consciousness.

There is heartbreak in the way Nordling’s eyes follow Park in the final scene as she shrouds her hair with a scarf. Lynn Milgrim as the indulgent nurse Marina and Morlan Higgins, returning to the stage after a three-year absence as the pockmarked neighbor Waffles, lend a steadying presence. Higgins helps ease the transitions with wistful musical interludes strummed on his mandolin.

Uncle Vanya, through Dec. 6; Antaeus Theatre Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 506-5436; antaeus.org.


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