Review: Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center

One of the neat things about living close to our nation’s capital (if you have the money) is to occasionally see top actors perform live on stage. Uncle Vanya, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through August 27, gives you three well-known movie actors performing on stage. All happen to be associated with the Sydney Theatre Company, and one of them, Cate Blanchett is not only a member of the company but its co-Artistic Director and co-CEO as well. Yes, the play Uncle Vanya is on tour and Washington is just its latest destination since the company first put it on stage in Sydney last November.

It feels at times like a mini Lord of the Rings reunion because we get two stars from those movies: Blanchett (who played Galadriel) and Hugo Weaving (Elrond, but perhaps best known as Agent Smith in three Matrix movies). But wait: there’s more, specifically Richard Roxburgh, probably best known as Count Dracula in the vacuous but very popular Gothic comedy Van Helsing.

It’s fair to say that Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a departure for all three actors. No question about it: Uncle Vanya is challenging material to work on stage. Happily, Director Tamas Ascher does an impressive job rendering this bleak story interesting on the stage. It is based on a new play by Andrew Upton, which is based on Chekhov’s original story.

Doubtless it would have been even more challenging to render it without its stellar cast. Still, at its root is a story that is both comedic and tragic that will be hard for most Americans to relate to, unless they are recent Russian immigrants. In the Russia of the 19th century, there were lots of unwashed peasants and few ways to ascend in the social hierarchy. The desperate need to be part of a higher social status is the animus of this entire play. With the exception of retired university professor Serebryakov (John Bell) and visiting physician Astrov (Hugo Weaving) everyone’s self worth seems bound to the professor’s. Through marriage to his late first wife, the retired professor has a country estate populated mostly by in-laws of his first wife, but also the biological daughter of he and his first wife. (Hayley McElhinney plays his daughter Sonya.) Since retiring, the crotchety professor, suffering from a combination of gout and a chronic lack of empathy allegedly common to many university professors, has the household in an unnatural state. Everyone is obsessively concerned with the professor’s needs and health, and will sacrifice their own physical and mental health so they can rest in the shadows of his academic glory.

It soon becomes clear that the professor’s reputation is exaggerated and that he is basically a very annoying old man. Everyone, with the possible exception of the relatively carefree Doctor Astrov, must don roles unsuited to them. Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) has managed the estate for decades, and did so faithfully for the poverty wages of five hundred rubles a year, while also spending late nights with his niece Sonya translating and promoting the professor’s writings. He still mourns the loss of his sister (the professor’s first wife), described as among the most beautiful of women. At the same time he is hopelessly in love with the professor’s second wife Yelena (Blanchett). Yelena meanwhile feels hopelessly trapped in her bad marriage, yet her self worth too depends on being the professor’s wife, so she slavishly caters to his every need while he either ignores or abuses her, while she repeatedly spurns Vanya’s numerous advances.

Poor “plain” daughter Sonya feels overshadowed by her beautiful stepmother, while secretly loving Doctor Astrov. Astrov though largely hates mankind, and is something of an environmentalist, concerned about a diminished forest he is trying to protect. He seems to hate his profession, is inured to the feelings of others, is nihilistic in nature and in particular is clueless about Sonya’s infatuation with him. Also on the estate is Vanya’s mother Maria (Sandy Gore), an old nurse Marina (Jacki Weaver) and Telegrin (Anthony Phelan), an impoverished landowner who helps the family out. Periodic bouts of comedy do help to lighten a grim story, but the fundamental problem remains: the plot is one that is hard for us to relate to.

Fundamentally, Uncle Vanya is a play about people trapped in roles and expectations, driven toward being real people instead of stereotypes, but unable to do so. As you would expect this leads to enormous conflicted feelings that have been ruthlessly repressed over the decades but which leach out under the extreme pressure of the professor’s domineering and crotchety demeanor. It almost makes you root for the Russian Revolution, so they can escape these roles, except the playwright puts these characters in somewhat more modern times, presumably around the 1950s because the radio and record player are around.

The Sydney Theatre Company delivers the goods with clever staging, directing, and fine acting that puts emotion into the gaps between words to enhance an otherwise thin script. Roxburgh’s performance is especially passionate, but Hugo Weaving and Hayley McElhinney probably get most of the time on stage. Weaving typically plays darker roles, but here he is one of the happier characters. McElhinney is anything but plain, and does an exceptional job balancing her character’s passions with the requirements of being dutiful and somewhat diminished by her mother’s low social class. Will anyone break free of the prison of society’s expectations? Come and see the show to find out, if you can get tickets. (Hint: given its bleakness, don’t get your hopes up.)

For those enamored with Hollywood stars, you get to enjoy Blanchett and Weaving together on stage for long periods of time. They are clearly comfortable acting with each other and friends. It is fun to see some sexual energy between them rendered intimately on stage. Indeed, in a brief scene they come close to getting it on.

If you enjoy your coffee extra bitter, there is much to enjoy in this fine cup of java.