The Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote his plays in the late 1800s. But his characters are as richly layered and recognizably human as those in any modern drama. A new translation and adaptation of Chekhov’s 'Uncle Vanya' at the Weston Playhouse Theater brings the play even closer to contemporary life.
The play takes place on a country estate in Russia. Its owner, a retired professor named Serebryakov, shows up after a long absence with Yelena, his much-younger wife. The place has been run for years by Sonya, the daughter of the owner’s first wife, and by her uncle, Ivan Petrovich Voynitzky, Uncle Vanya. The two characters have worked hard on the estate’s farm and sent the proceeds to support the owner’s urban lifestyle and his status as an academic star.
Actor Liam Craig plays Vanya. He says his character sees himself as the patriarch of the estate.
"And then the professor and his beautiful young wife arrive," Craig says. "And (they) sort of throw the whole place into a tizzy."
Serebryakov and his wife keep odd hours; the professor calls for tea in the middle of the night, waking up the household. Work on the farm stops as Vanya falls hopelessly in love with the young Yelena. Vanya also realizes that the professor isn’t such a big star after all, and begins to grapple with the seeming insignificance of his own life. But Yelena has her eyes on someone else -- the physician Astrov, Vanya’s drinking buddy and a frequent visitor to the estate.
In this scene Yelena, played by Kathleen McElfresh, chastises Vanya for insulting her husband.
"And today, you picked a fight with him at breakfast," Yelena says. "It’s so petty!"
"Well, I hate him," Vanya replies. Yelena laughs.
"It’s pointless to hate Alexander," she says. "He’s the same as all of us -- no worse than you."
But Vanya is distracted.
"If only you could see your face right now," he tells Yelena. "The way you move… your laziness. You couldn’t care less.”
“Fine! Fine! I’m lazy and I’m boring," Yelena responds. "You know," she adds, "everybody makes fun of Alexander and pretends to pity me. 'Poor thing, she has an old husband!' But I see past it. It’s just like Astrov said. Man will indiscriminately destroy the forest until there’s nothing left. It’s the same thing when you pick people apart and try to make it seem like there’s no purity or self sacrifice left in them."
The physician Astrov’s passion for saving the forest is part of what draws Yelena, who lacks a sense of purpose in her own life.
"The doctor has a tired but interesting face," Yelena muses to Vanya during one of their conversations, "Since I’ve been here he’s come to visit three times, but you know, I get shy around him. We’ve never had a real conversation." She Pauses. " Maybe I haven’t been nice enough. Maybe he thinks I’m mean."
She turns to Vanya. "Well, maybe that’s why we’re friends Ivan Petrovich," she says. "We’re just tedious, boring people… Don’t look at me like that.”
References to boredom come up often in the play. Mike Donahue, the director, says people sometimes think Chekhov is boring.
"I think that’s oftentimes the result of sort of stilted translations where the language doesn’t feel fresh or contemporary or playable for the actors," Donahue says. "They’re not mining the humor in these plays."
Donahue says playwright Annie Baker’s colloquial 2012 translation makes the play more accessible and allows the humor to emerge. Campbell Scott, who plays the doctor Astrov, says the saddest parts are in many cases the funniest.
"It’s very accurate, it seems to me," Scott says. "You think someone is losing their mind with sadness or depression. But the next minute they’re saying something truly either perceptive about someone else, or totally -- in a comedic way -- unperceptive about themselves."
Actor Liam Craig says Anton Chekhov, with his flawed and complex characters, is the first truly modern playwright. He says Weston’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ is especially relevant and contemporary. Everyone in the play is dissatisfied in some way and hoping for change. And in the end they do change, though not as much as they might have hoped for.
"And if we’re doing our jobs," Craig says, "people are going to come and they’re going to recognize themselves on that stage, and they’re going to be moved and hopefully be changed and certainly made to think, by the work."
This is not your uncle’s Uncle Vanya, he says.
Weston’s Uncle Vanya opened Thursday night and runs through September 6.