Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” describes what happens to an 1890s Russian household when a literature professor returns to the family estate with his beautiful young second wife. The wife disrupts the provincial estate by drawing her brother-in-law, stepdaughter, and the family doctor into her bubble of enchanting lassitude. But the play only works if the young wife is irresistibly charming.
Unfortunately, the wife in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s current production is all too easily resisted. Usually known as Yelena, but renamed Helen by new translator Nathan Thomas, she is played by Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly as a fluttering ditz without a serious thought or ambition in her pretty head. If we in the audience find her shallow and uninteresting—and we do—the infatuations of Johnny and Michael (better known as Vanya and Mikhail from earlier translations) make no sense.
It’s too bad, for the performances by Kevin Costa as the brother-in-law Johnny and especially by Ron Heneghan as the doctor Michael are quite impressive. Both men are on the wrong side of 40, worn down by the hard work, muddy roads, and empty gossip of rural Russia. For them, Helen represents a last-chance opportunity to reclaim their youth—and they make fools of themselves in lunging after it.
They are at their most foolish—and most entertaining—in act two when they down shot after shot of vodka. Michael dismisses Johnny’s noble sentiments by declaring that men can’t love women without lust—and then demonstrates it by dry humping his drunken comrade. The pouting Johnny tries to push him away and they end up rolling around the floor in an inspired bit of slapstick comedy.
Sophia, the professor’s daughter by his first marriage, has been nursing her own infatuation for six years. Played by Lizzi Albert as a short, practical woman in sensible clothes and a sensible hairdo, the hard-working Sophia brightens only when Michael comes into the room. Alas, he never seems to notice, and the distraught girl confides her secret to her stepmother and asks her to sound out the doctor on his intentions. When Helen gets Michael alone, however, he declares that he has no interest in Sophia but abundant interest in Helen.
I’ve seen many fine actresses play Helen/Yelena—Deborah Hazlett at the Everyman Theatre, Kathryn Dowling at Center Stage, Cate Blanchett at the Kennedy Center, and Julianne Moore in Andre Gregory’s great film, “Vanya on 42nd Street”—and all of them embodied a restless intelligence and smoldering desire trapped in a stale marriage. Their coy flirting was magnetic, and their refusals of the doctor were ambiguous: saying “no” with their mouths and “yes” with their eyes.
All this seems beyond Kelly’s scope. She turns Helen into one of those shallow rich relations who are so often the target of Jane Austen’s scorn. To make matters worse, Kelly has an especially annoying mannerism: holding her hands and fingers straight as boards, which tilt at the most unnatural angles as if they were loosened shutters on a hinge.
Director Ian Gallanar seems unable to eliminate such distractions. The stage crew can’t put a tablecloth on a table correctly, a tangled piece of yarn upstages a conversation between Nanny (Lisa Hodsoll) and Elijah (Scott Alan Small), and actors sometimes pause for a memory check before delivering their lines.
Michael says he’s a “coot” in this new translation by company member Thomas. That Americanism doesn’t ring true; in most translations he describes himself as “silly” or “eccentric,” which fit the context better. Thomas has Sophia call herself “ugly,” which seems unduly harsh and inaccurate compared to the usual translation of “homely” or “plain.” And while the Americanized names for the characters will work if you’re encountering the play for the first time, they’re distracting to anyone already familiar with “Uncle Vanya.”
But when the play reaches its climax, when the professor threatens to sell the estate and Johnny explodes in his famous tantrum, the stage suddenly comes alive. Costa, who had been overly whiny in the first act, finds his footing and delivers a tirade that is both ferocious in its resentment and funny in its self-pity. A short, round figure squinting through oval glasses, he has been a buffoon for most of the play but now shocks the audience as much as the other characters with his unsuspected spine. He soon becomes a buffoon again when he picks up a rifle, but he has made his point.
Johnny never stood a chance competing against the tall, slender Michael, just as Sophia never stood a chance against the tall, shapely Helen. But Michael is a bit of a clown himself, trying to impress everyone with his colored charts about deforestation and his noble but unlikely theories about reforestation. Except for Sophia, no one cares, and he drowns his disappointment in vodka and in equally improbable dreams of Helen. Heneghan is very good at capturing the dilemma of an idealist who has grown too old and experienced to remain confident of his own beliefs.
“Uncle Vanya,” which will run in repertory with Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” after the latter opens on Feb. 27, is handsomely mounted and has enough good moments to be watchable. But by failing to give us a Helen as mesmerizing as the one described in Chekhov’s script, this production leaves an emptiness at the very center of this great play.