By Chris Reynolds
Summer torpor suffuses the stage even before the first scene in Hedgerow Theatre’s current production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: we walk into the theater past a dozing man and a needlewoman absorbed in their timeless endeavors. Bird chirps and insect whirs are just audible through the opened windows suggested by the slack linen curtains loosely hung around the perimeter of the sunroom. We soon settle into the mood of the place, a country estate in Russia.
Hedgerow’s is a big-hearted, deeply felt staging of a deeply humane play, with dialogue and action that captures the ennui and the ridiculousness, the humor and the pain of close family life amidst the estate’s “elegant decay.” The cast is uniformly strong, delivering nuance and complexity in their characters.
Vanya (Adam Altman) exemplifies the contradictions of a man stuck in middle age. He is complicated, alternately paralyzed and depressed, antic and sarcastic, mocking the conventions and rituals of country life that others have embraced — a life he feels has drained him over a quarter century: “All feeling I used to have is dried up.” Luminosity has come into his life in the form of Elena, but her glow remains out of reach.
Elena (Jessica Dal Canton) is louche and languid, careless with her power to enchant, and defiantly determined to make nothing of her life. She blames her encumbrance with a failing husband for her lack of ambition and confidence to do better. Vanya is jealous of this pedantic, gouty man whom he once worshipped and now despises, yet he seems incapable of acting on his animosity.
The scenes cycle through a series of dialogues, advancing ideas through the tensions among the household, each probing at a different aspect of life and work and love. Vanya’s niece Sonya (Jennifer Summerfield) and friend Dr. Astrov (Jared Reed) remain idealistic despite the wearying years they’ve spent among the fading gentry and “squalid” peasantry of the Russian countryside.
Despite the life force and passions that move them forward, Sonya says, “We don’t know what we want from the world… but it disappoints us.” Her disappointment comes hard — she is responsible, idealistic and generous — and is softened, perhaps, by the belief that her reward is eternal. Astrov is a cynical dreamer, disillusioned by the way the world is going, crushed by his own failures, yet always looking forward. (His ecological theories eerily presage our current concerns today about climate change, and one wishes his arguments could find more purchase.)
Also resonating with a contemporary audience is Elena’s “fossilized oaf” of a husband, professor Aleksandr (John Lopes), a self-centered blowhard who expects the world to satisfy him, whose existence is subsidized by the labor of his family, yet who still wants more than the servitude he has exacted from them these 25 years; completely oblivious to their sacrifices.
Vanya and Sonya wonder where life would have led them but for the cards they drew. Is theirs a hopeless fate, a labor to be compensated in the next life, or ultimately meaningless? This timeless play, an early expostulation of themes that would shape existentialism, considers nothing less than this central question.
Oh, and it’s funny. Faithful retainer Waffles (Zoran Kovcic) and grande dame Maria (Penelope Reed) contribute to that, of course, in their dotty ways. Director Kittson O’Neill elicits performances that reflect the gentle absurdity of the main characters’ conflicts, and a crackling, surprisingly modern sense of humor peppers the dialogue throughout.
See Hedgerow’s Uncle Vanya unfurl in the company’s historic mill building at 64 Rose Valley Road. Performances are Friday through Sunday, this weekend and through March 3. Information is at hedgerowtheatre.org.