A prestigious collaboration
Much of Goodman’s marketing of Artistic Director Robert Falls’ 30th season at the Goodman has touted the fact that he was named “Chicago’s most essential director” by the Chicago Tribune. Additional marketing for their current production of Uncle Vanya(helmed by Falls) proudly shares the fact that its adaptor, Annie Baker, received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play, The Flick. Such fanfare, combined with a venerable Chekhovian classic, served to heighten my expectations for Uncle Vanya considerably. In the face of such towering hype, this prestigious collaboration delivers splendidly.
Goodman Theatre’s Uncle Vanya full of life
Uncle Vanya, written by Anton Chekhov and here adapted by Annie Baker, explores the torturous, humorous, and human intersections of youth and aging amidst a large country estate. Vanya (Tim Hopper) and his niece Sonya (Caroline Neff) have toiled to maintain this estate for the benefit of Serebryakov (David Darlow), a rheumatic professor. When they are visited by the professor and his alluring wife, Yelena (Kristen Bush), along with the philosophizing doctor,Astrov (MartonCsokas), regret, rivalry, and unrequited love come to a head in a moving play about hope and the human condition.
While commonly characterized for its characters seemingly inactive lives, Falls’ direction paired with a fully present ensemble brings Chekhov’s story to life in strikingly human ways. Whether it is a forlorn look from Neff’s Sonya, the gentle reassurance of nanny Marina (Mary Ann Thebus), or a comical-but-sad crawl from Hopper as Vanya, each actor’s physical choices speak volumes about their characters’ inner lives. That such simple choices appear so effortless and yet are so affecting is a testament to Falls’ trust in his talented cast.
Detailed design underscores play’s themes
Equally talented is Uncle Vanya’s design team, which features an impressive set by Todd Rosenthal complemented by Keith Parham’s evocative lighting. Generations of bric-a-brac line the walls and tables of the country estate, the foliage of its grounds visible through two large doors that lead outside stage right. The estate’s peeling, mint walls loom tall above the actors, who seem at times to be swallowed up by the estate. On the upstage wall rests an enormous, ornate frame, empty save for when an actor’s shadow fills its vacancy with precision.
Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes distill each character’s essence without reducing them to stereotypes. Yelena’s richly colored outfits exude her class and upbringing, while those who have been running the estate are more worn and muted. Rich with history, the detailed design helps reinforce the weight time places on each of Vanya’s characters.
Simple and moving
Noted for his contributions to the genre of psychological realism, Chekhov has long been lauded for his astute portrayal of humans in all of their absurd complexities. Playwright Annie Baker’s treatment of his text is reverent, contemporizing his language to sound more natural to modern audiences without compromising the richness of each character. While some moments of Falls’ production could more fully capture a sense of yearning, there is an unmistakable power in the play’s quieter moments.
When Sonya lines pots and pans under a leaking roof or Yelena longingly gazes at a piano she could play, we share in each character’s confrontations of the life that could have been and the life that currently is, pausing to reflect on our own regrets, hopes, and dreams.
Uncle Vanya has been extended by popular demand and runs through March 19th. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00p, and Sundays at 2:00pm, with one final Sunday performance at 7:30pm on March 19th.
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn