Corrections or additions?
This article by was prepared for the April 30, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A New Look at `Uncle Vanya’
Uncle Vanya" opens with a casual exchange between
a country doctor and an old nurse. "How long have we known each
other?" he asks. "Eleven years," she replies. And when he
asks her "Have I changed?" she replies in the affirmative:
"Then you were young, now you’re old."
As artistic director Emily Mann completes her 13th season at McCarter
Theater, this simple observation about how time seems to speed up
as we reach middle age resonates loud and clear. Like Chekhov’s
characters, she, too, has felt like asking, "How did this
"Where did the years go?"
Mann’s new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya," which she also
features Steven Skybell as Vanya and Amanda Plummer as Sonya, with
Jonathan Hogan, William Biff McGuire, Natacha Roi, Michael Siberry,
Isa Thomas, and Georgine Hall. Opening night is Friday, May 2, for
the show that runs through May 18. The show is a co-production with
the La Jolla Playhouse in California. Following its Princeton run,
it will transfer to La Jolla, where it will play from May 30 to June
In a recent interview after a rehearsal, an animated Emily Mann
her cast as an extraordinary ensemble of soloists. "There are
no minor roles in this play," she says. "Everyone is
important to the balance of the whole. And just to have a longer run
is so lovely for everyone."
In addition to Skybell and Plummer, the cast features Michael Siberry
as the country doctor Mikhail Astrov, and Natacha Roi as Yelena, the
old professor’s young wife. Also featured are William Biff McGuire
as the elderly professor, Georgine Hall as Maria Voynitsky, the mother
of his first wife, Isa Thomas as the old nanny, and Jonathan Hogan
as a poor landowner.
Mann has previously presented two Chekhov masterworks at McCarter,
"Three Sisters" and "Cherry Orchard," both
by critics and audiences. However, she says the choice of
to make a Chekhov "trilogy" was the furthest thing from her
Mann says she was working on "Three Sisters,"
during her second McCarter season — 11 years ago — when she
last read "Uncle Vanya" closely. "I had resisted doing
it earlier because I never understood it," she says. "I didn’t
understand the depths of it."
"Back then I had really strong feelings about `Three Sisters,’
but when it came to `Uncle Vanya’ I just felt I wish I knew what they
were crying about."
"When you reach a certain age, when you hit midlife, there are
things you discover about yourself and others. Men especially who
hit mid-life seem to ask, `Is this it?’ `Have I squandered my life?’
At this age we all have friends who are questioning the road not
"Coming to Princeton was a great move for me, but suddenly time
sped up. I still wonder how it went by so fast. I came here with a
six-year-old, a first grader, and he’s now a freshman in college."
After more than 100 years, Chekhov’s play still resonates with people
trying to juggle big ambitions with the reality of everyday life.
"We’re dealing with deep sadness, every single one of them is
very, very lonely. Everyone is questioning their choices —
except perhaps Marina, the nanny, she knows who and what she is. She
has a sense of purpose in her own life and I don’t think she lives
Mann says a classic such as "Uncle Vanya" comes with a lot
of tradition about how certain roles are played. One in particular
that comes to mind is "that old stock professor character"
so often used.
"The key for me actually is how I’ve come to deal with the
says Mann. "He’s so often played as the villain and a silly old
fool, a really hateful individual. He’s played as the fraud that Vanya
accuses him of being."
"But the role is written as an eminent old man. Yes he has health
problems, but he was a very successful man, a very eminent man. It
makes it much more difficult for all the characters. If he’s simply
hateful, people don’t have to look at themselves. It’s always easier
to say you’re a victim rather than a fool."
Mann says she gained insight into the professor’s character by looking
closely at the character of Yelena, examining her words line by line.
"Yelena says `I married him because I fell in love with him, I
fell in love with his brilliance and his fame’," says Mann.
was no dummy, she was an educated young woman who was dazzled by this
man. This gives us the hint that he was quite a glamorous figure."
As she did with her production of Chekhov’s "Cherry Orchard,"
Mann collaborated with Ellen Chances, a Princeton professor of Russian
literature and culture, on her adaptation. Mann worked with the script
over a period of six months, then spent one intensive month working
with Chances to come up with what she now describes as "a new
and beautiful and passionate piece of writing."
"It’s wonderful to have a fresh feeling to the lines, to make
it feel and sound as if it was written first in English," she
says. She adds that the experience of having worked together
on "Cherry Orchard" hastened the process.
"The plays are very different but they have recurring themes,"
says Mann. "Unlike `Cherry Orchard,’ this is not written as a
comedy. But Chekhov once said `I want to write simply, I want to write
sparely, and I want to write the way people actually talk.’ So this
is a language of simplicity and reality."
While Vanya is the protagonist of this play, Doctor Astrov plays a
major supporting role. Astrov, whom Mann describes as "a glorious
man," is probably the character who most resembles the playwright.
He’s a country doctor who at times must step over livestock to get
to his patients, he is interested in ecology, and committed to saving
Russia’s natural resources. One of the women in the play compares
him to "a moon rising on a dark night."
"The doctor is a man of real enthusiasm and real passions,"
says Mann. "It’s sad to watch that idealism and energy and light
get snuffed out."
Vanya, on the other hand, has already — at age 47 — lost all
hope and ambition. The "uncle" of the play’s title, Mann
refers only to Sonya, the professor’s plain, love-struck daughter,
played by Plummer, because Vanya is uncle only to her. "The play
is about two very lonely, very trapped, very brilliant people who
try to break out of the trap of their lives — and both fail,"
Equally trapped is the professor’s beautiful young wife, Yelena.
thinks she must be so happy because she’s so beautiful," says
Mann. "But she’s trapped in a marriage that is no longer a love
match with an old man who cannot love her in a romantic way. He takes
her from St. Petersburg to the middle of nowhere, to a house full
of boring people who can’t stand her. But she made a vow before God.
She made a mistake, an awful mistake, and we recognize her beauty
and her pain."
Born in Russia in 1860, Chekhov began writing short stories during
his days as a medical student at the University of Moscow. After
in 1884 with a degree in medicine, he worked as a freelance journalist
and wrote comic sketches. His first full-length plays were completed
in the late 1880s. But it was not until the first Moscow Art Theater
production of "The Seagull" in 1897 that he began to enjoy
In 1899 Chekhov gave the Moscow Art Theater "Uncle Vanya."
Today, along with "The Three Sisters" and "The Cherry
Orchard," the play has become one of the masterpieces of the
theater. As he reached middle age, Chekhov, like his fictional
was forced to live away from Moscow for his health. He died of
in 1904 at age 44.
Mann’s production is set in 1896 Russian, the period of the play’s
writing. The design team includes sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting
by Nancy Schertler, costumes by Myung Hee Cho, and original music
by Baikida Carroll. As we engage with Chekhov’s play written more
than 100 years ago, modern audiences may well ask, "Where did
the years go?"
— Nicole Plett
609-258-2787. Opening night for the production that runs to Sunday,
May 18. $24 to $47. Friday, May 2, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.