Dissatisfaction and longing have always been a part of human suffering. These emotions are depicted weightily yet intimately in the Russian classic Uncle Vanya, playing in the 48-seat Dietz Theater at Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse.
Bob Belfance, who directs the play by Anton Chekhov, has assembled a tight-knit cast of eight that brings out the sad humor and overarching ennui of the story, set on a country estate outside St. Petersburg in 1899. Ill professor Serebryakov (Dale Franks) and his beautiful young wife, Yelena (Amanda Larkin), have returned to the country, where they thoroughly disrupt the lives of the hard-working people who live there, including Sofya (Jen Klika) — Serebryakov’s daughter from his previous marriage — and his deceased wife’s brother, Vanya (Alex Cikra).
Hardly anyone’s happy in this story: Several characters wallow in self-pity and boredom, others worry about unrequited love, while some resent the sickness of old age or feel jaded in middle age. Ironically, Telegin, the comical landowner played by Timothy Kelley who seems to have suffered the most, has the most positive attitude of all.
Weathervane’s cast is performing Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s 1988 adaptation of the 1899 Russian masterpiece, created from a literal translation by Vlada Chernomirdik. His goal was to keep the play’s powerful plot, themes and setting but enliven the language and situations for modern audiences.
The emotions in this production have a timeless sensibility. Belfance, former managing artistic director at Weathervane, says in his director’s notes that Chekhov’s plays don’t necessarily make a point, but their themes deal with the destruction of beauty. The director also mentions minds that never mesh with Chekhov’s characters.
The upper-class characters are so full of ennui, they can’t connect, while peasants such as nanny Marina (Marci Paolucci) seem perfectly happy. In Uncle Vanya, characters worry about the destruction of nature, a woman’s wasted youth and beauty, and the slipping away of a man’s prime years of life.
That’s not to say this production isn’t funny. Paolucci creates a folksy, quirky humor with Marina’s terms of endearment such as “little father.’’ And Klika, as the old maid Sofya, complains that only plain women are told their hair is pretty, which is so true of any time period.
Professing the most resentment with his sarcastic observations is Alex Cikra’s Vanya, who has been caretaker of Serebryakov’s estate for 25 years. We get the feeling this man is sticking up for himself for the first time with an indignation that is sadly comical.
Cikra is such a strong actor, he elicits sympathy for his character simply with the sad, sad set of his mouth in a scene where Vanya’s hopes for love are dashed. The actor also excels in both a sarcastic speech extolling Yelena as a water nymph and in a violent scene where he seethes with resentment.
Jim Fippin’s doctor Astrov is the least clearly defined of the main characters: The bland Astrov feels nothing and nothing makes him happy, yet he is still attracted to beauty.
Amanda Larkin’s beautiful Yelena is smarter, more interesting and more manipulative than one would imagine from reading the script. This well-educated, upper-class woman is a fish out of water in the country, where everyone else labors to make her and her husband happy. Under Belfance’s direction, it’s interesting that we’re not quite clear what Yelena’s motivations are when it comes to love.
Costumes by Justyn Tyler Jaymes create marked contrast between the stylish, French skirts and blouses that lady of leisure Yelena wears and the plain, homespun earthen tones that her hard-working stepdaughter Sofya wears.
Uncle Vanya presents a war of emotions. After Serebryakov and Yelena turn things upside down, can life ever go back to normal on this country estate?
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.