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Uncle Vanya at Torn Space

James Luse as Vanya. (photo by Lukia Costello)

With Anton Chekhov’s 1899 masterwork, Uncle Vanya, Torn Space Theater—Buffalo’s foremost non-realist theater—once again lunges unflinchingly into the realm of theatrical realism. Last season they took an expressionistic view of Tennessee Williams’s postwar realist play, A Streetcar Named Desire, but with Chekhov, they mine the mother lode, taking on the man who, with Ibsen and Strindberg, arguably invented Modern Drama.

Under the direction of Megan Callahan, this production is thrillingly performed in an upstairs space at the Dnipro Ukranian Cultural Center on Genessee Street. The first half is played against a bank of windows overlooking Buffalo’s East Side. For the second half, the room is reconfigured so the audience faces the opposite direction, into a series of draperies designed by Melissa Meola and Dan Shanahan that serve as a backdrop for expressionistic video design by Jim Bush and lighting by Jay Clark.

Russian dramatic realism developed at a time of huge social and political change. Artists in that country were increasingly aware of the West, where the ideas of thinkers like Darwin, Freud, Pasteur, and Marx were turning time-honored truths upside down. For Russians, a revolution was coming, quite literally. And in this little window of time, between the freeing of the serfs in 1861 and the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, Modern Drama was born.

More to the point for this occasion, through the genius of his director, Constantin Stanislavski, Chekhov’s plays gave birth to the acting method to which virtually every American actor is indebted. For her production of Uncle Vanya, Callahan has tapped the talents of her own acting teacher, James Luse.

In the play, Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya, have slaved away the years running the farm that Sonya’s father, a professor, has inherited from Sonya’s late mother, who was Vanya’s sister. They have sent every spare kopek to provide a lavish existence to the professor, while they have lived modest and difficult lives. Now the professor has returned home with a beautiful young wife and is about to announce his intention to sell the property to provide an even more extravagant life for himself and his bride, oblivious to the cost this will have for anyone else, or the debt he owes Vanya and Sonya.

Relationships in Chekhov are always difficult to follow. There is never a family intact. Servants and neighbors give the appearance of being family members. This presented a huge challenge for early performances of Chekhov, when actors were trained in a melodramatic stock company style that required little or no rehearsal—an ingénue was an ingénue, a villain was a villain. The under-rehearsed first production of The Seagull was a notorious disaster—the audience could not tell who was related to whom or what was going on.

The Torn Space production coasts on the fact that today, method acting is second nature to most actors. There are times when this quickly mounted production is difficult to follow, even for those well-familiar with Uncle Vanya, and reading a synopsis in advance might enhance one’s experience.

At first, Luse’s performance seems out of place. He hits the stage full-throttle with a performance heavily laden with visible technique, well honed gestures, and frenetic energy. I would guess that he walked into the rehearsal hall with a good deal of the performance worked out in advance—after all, he comes from a world, unlike Buffalo, in which an actor definitely prepares. One might anticipate that it was not always feasible for the director to reign in or shape the performance of the man who had been her teacher. Nonetheless, as the drama continues, we get used to Luse’s progression of ticks and gesticulations; his motivations begin to align with the other actors onstage, and the entire production gains the appropriate feeling of ensemble. Moreover, Luse’s slight air of camp detachment proves useful in the second half when Uncle Vanya, having become unhinged by the professor’s callous intentions, makes the gun-toting chase through the house, famously melding total desperation with unbridled hilarity.

I found the movement of the production from a stylized but basically realistic setting toward the expressionistic domain for which Torn Space is better known to be fascinating and enjoyable. It is useful to recall that playwrights of the Modern era often worked comfortably in both realist and non-realist forms. (Ibsen wrote both A Doll House and Peer Gynt; Strindberg wrote both Miss Julie and A Dream Play.) Chekhov is a man of the real, but he still certainly leaves enough space for reinterpretation. In Uncle Vanya, as in The Three Sisters, which Chekhov wrote the following year, the characters are overwhelmed by a realist’s sense of the mundane—the fact that the tea is cold is heralded as if it were a major revelation. Still, they frequently break through with histrionic outbursts that border on the expressionistic. Even in the opening scene, Astov’s prolonged speech about how life has become boring, senseless, and base, and how his feelings are dead to the world, seems more like a T. S. Eliot poem than a realistic speech.

Indeed, the Torn Space production reminds us that there is plenty of latitude within Chekhov’s world to depart from literal realism. We may associate theatrical realism with sets and costumes that looked as if they were taken directly from life and acting that took on the quality of daily existence, but the true motivation for the movement was the need to face contemporary problems head on—or realistically. Realists refused to make simple moral judgments or to resolve dramatic action neatly, and no topic was excluded from the stage. This is perfect fodder for a play at Torn Space, a theater where they never condescend to the audience, and where we are actually expected to think.

While on the surface, Luse might not seem to be the ideal Vanya, his very departure from the mold invites an additional layer of complexity—a man’s true motivations are, after all, ultimately unknowable.

Why has Vanya made the choices he has? He claims he has stayed in the home of his late sister, slaving away his life while providing a lavish living for his absent brother-in-law, the professor, because he wants to ensure the future of his beloved niece, Sonya. Intriguingly, this explanation never seems quite satisfactory. In this production, neither does his proclaimed attraction to the Professor’s new wife, Yelena. These ambiguities add strength to the production.

In truth what we find in Chekhov’s plays is not meaningless malaise, but people with hidden frailties who are unable to adapt to a changing world. By 1930, the jazz age having come to an abrupt halt, Ira Gershwin would evoke Chekhov to describe a loveless existence at a time of economic despair: “With love to lead the way/ I’ve found more clouds of gray/ than any Russian play/ could guarantee.”

The Torn Space production of Uncle Vanya seems to take Chekhov’s metaphor of deforestation (which he would rework for The Cherry Orchard in 1904) as a literal theme of environmental conservation. What Chekhov is driving at is the need for stable connections between people anchored to a place called home, but threatened by a world in flux. The actors zero in on this to most satisfying effect.

Diane Gaidry, a charismatic actress with an alluring yet understated stage presence, has found an ideal artistic home at avant-garde Torn Space. She gives another measured and methodical performance here as Yelena, the professor’s new wife.

Morgan Chard is excellent as Sonya, a role for which she is far too attractive—a fact that adds an interesting layer. What makes a woman attractive? Why does Sonya place such a low value on herself? Why does her own father value her so little? Why can’t the doctor love her? Chard does much of the play’s heavy lifting, and makes to endeavor look effortless.

I especially enjoyed James Heffron as Astov, the physician who becomes a regular visitor to the household, but who chooses frivolous Yelena over substantial Sonya. His readings are a model of concise clarity.

Add to the mix the two of Buffalo’s most talented character actress, the always appealing Virginia Brannon as the servant Marina, and chameleon-like (in the most flattering sense) Joy Scime, whose abilities range from the role she plays here to her memorable Electra.

The world of Uncle Vanya is further populated by Marshall Maxwell as the maddeningly clueless professor, Schott Slocum as Telegin, and Jacob Albarella as Yefim.

On some levels this is a lean and economical Uncle Vanya. On other levels, we are treated to a lavish array of riches, as we make the journey from literal realism into the heart of expression that was the true point of the realist movement in the first place. By turning the audience from a real world facing in one direction, into a manufactured expressionistic world facing inward in the opposite direction, Callahan brings new insight into one of the greatest plays ever written.

The very short run continues only through August 4. See “On the Boards” for details.

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