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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

country

characters, she, too, has felt like asking, "How did this

happen?"

"Where did the years go?"

Mann’s new adaptation of "Uncle Vanya," which she also

directs,

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

29.

In a recent interview after a rehearsal, an animated Emily Mann

describes

her cast as an extraordinary ensemble of soloists. "There are

no minor roles in this play," she says. "Everyone is

incredibly

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

well-received

by critics and audiences. However, she says the choice of

"Vanya"

to make a Chekhov "trilogy" was the furthest thing from her

mind.

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

taken."

"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 —

everyone

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

with regret."

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

professor,"

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.

"Yelena

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

previously

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

explains,

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,"

she says.

Equally trapped is the professor’s beautiful young wife, Yelena.

"Everyone

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

graduating

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

real success.

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

modern

theater. As he reached middle age, Chekhov, like his fictional

characters,

was forced to live away from Moscow for his health. He died of

tuberculosis

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

Uncle Vanya, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Opening night for the production that runs to Sunday,

May 18. $24 to $47. Friday, May 2, 8 p.m.


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