Place Westwind Repertory in that group of area companies whose productions of exciting and purely produced theater demand attention. The production of “Uncle Vanya,” which opened September 10 at College of New Jersey’s Kendall Hall Black Box theater, is only the fifth for the company that made its debut in spring 1995, yet it’s another winner. Westwind began life with “A Doll House,” followed by “Design for Living,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and “The Cocktail Hour.”
Although it occasionally performs elsewhere, Westwind calls the Hun School home and it moves its fine production of “Uncle Vanya” there September 26 to 28 and October 3 and 4. Go where the wind blows.Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” is now 100 years old. Yet “Uncle Vanya” lives. First published in 1897, the play was staged in 1899 by Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, but it was not translated into English until 1923. Yet the play helped set the course for modern drama, where character, and the interactions of characters, rather than plot or action, are the play’s engine. Directed by Westwind’s artistic director, Dale Simon, in David Mamet’s adaptation from the Vlada Chernomirdik translation, the play is spellbinding.
Chekhov’s play endures because, while the world of late 19th-century, pre-revolutionary Russia is long gone, the elemental human passions that form its focus , love, frustration, boredom, disappointment, and foolishness , have not changed. It is a play of suppressed emotions: the only violence here is the angry and bitterly disregarded Vanya’s mad outburst with a pistol. Yet his shots, like the rest of his life, prove ineffectual.
Even in this new adaptation, which Simon has directed to bring out the play’s small comedies, followers of Chekhov will recognize familiar themes: unhappiness, hopelessness, suffering, the need for useful work, hope for redemption in an afterlife, and a vision of the future. “People who come after us in 100 years will judge us…” is one of these characters’ persistent preoccupations. We also recognize their endless introspection and self-analysis. And, of course, since Chekhov was himself a doctor, the presence of a doctor. Here the dissatisfied healer is also a sometime catalyst.
The play’s other catalyst is Yelena Andreyevna, the second and beautiful young wife of the retired, aging professor and art critic Alexandr Serebryakov. The couple have come home to live on the estate that belonged to the professor’s deceased first wife, and which has now passed to Sonya, their daughter. Sonya has lived her life here with her Uncle Vanya, her dead mother’s brother. Vanya has worked doggedly on the estate for 20 years to pay off its debt and support his brother-in-law, the self-important intellectual, with the estate’s small income.
Matters come to a head when Vanya makes known to Yelena, the young beauty, his love for her. Although she does not love her husband, and suffers daily torpor, she rebuffs Vanya’s repeated attentions. Sonya, a plain but passionate young woman, loves the doctor, Astrov, who likewise does not return her love. Yelena, in turn, is attracted to the country doctor, and while holding to her virtue and respectability, grants him no more than one goodbye kiss.
The climax comes when the despotic professor , whom Vanya calls a fraud and a know-nothing about art , declares his plan to sell the estate and invest the money to slightly greater annual return. Vanya, already rejected by Yelena, seeing his life’s work cruelly dismissed, fires at Serebryakov at point blank range and , it is a symbol of his entire existence , misses. At the play’s close, Yelena and her professor Serebryakov leave the estate, the doctor departs, and Sonya and Vanya, each suppressing a hopeless love, return to the estate account books. Sonya promises her father his customary monthly income. For Vanya and Sonya nothing has changed, unless it is the underscored emptiness of their daily lives.
In this powerful, all-star cast, well costumed to the period of late 19th-century Russia by Evelyn Knuppel, the two central women are outstanding: Julia Ohm, Westwind’s producing director, is fully convincing as the bored and beautiful Yelena, who charms just by being. Ohm picks up a multitude of nuances of speech and expression for her character, and pitches her usually strong voice to the soft, low register of ennui , “I’m on the edge of tears,” “I’m dying of boredom.” Janet Quartarone, as the young Sonya, shows the rapt intensity of her love for the doctor, fear and dutifulness toward her father, and a girlish confidence to her enchanting but virtuous stepmother: she is utterly compelling in the role.
Nicholas Andrefsky gives a fine, convincing performance as the doctor, Astrov. When he says of the life at the estate, “the air alone would strangle you,” you sense the suffocating atmosphere experienced even by this outsider. Brian Bara as Uncle Vanya projects the hopelessness of his character, his wasted intellect, the drudgery of his provincial life, and what he has come to believe is its terrible worthlessness.And director Simon keeps these characters moving unobtrusively. The plays remains fluid, never talky.
In a serendipitous updating, Astrov discusses his forest management plan and his maps in a way that suggests a contemporary environmental consciousness. One also sees, from today’s vantage point, the stifling lives of the times for women of the landed gentry: they do nothing beyond their existence as the wives of men. Or as their mothers or daughters. Nothing that is not in relation to men.
“People a hundred years from now will…” predicts more than one of these characters. It is the play’s anxious refrain. But could they have imagined us, the opening night audience of this fine production, mesmerized by the play’s performance? “People a hundred years from now?” That’s us.
Uncle Vanya, Westwind Repertory, Hun School, Edgerstoune Road, 609-716-8413. $12. Saturday, September 27, 8 p.m. Also Sunday, September 28, 2 p.m., Friday, October 3, 8 p.m., and Saturday, October 4, 8 p.m.