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Emotionally Intense Performances and Skilled Direction Drive “Uncle Vanya’s” Success

Reviewed by Mara Guyer

In Uncle Vanya, the future is full of contradictions. Winter will be eerily quiet without summer birdsong, but maybe it will be more peaceful that way. Those who obsess over their legacies might be forgotten regardless. Everyone will be happier than we are in 100 years, or we could destroy the environment first.

Under Jan Powell’s skillful direction, Richmond Shakes’ Uncle Vanya explores and embraces the oddities of Anton Chekhov’s classic work. It feels modern, and urgent — from its explicit environmental themes to the characters’ struggles to find meaning in the mundane and cruel circumstances of their lives. In her director’s note, Powell describes finding renewed interest in Uncle Vanya during the COVID-19 pandemic. The shared experiences of the past three years are a backdrop which allow the production to derive heightened relevance and new meaning from Chekhov’s story. The atmosphere of uncertainty, the abrupt tonal shifts from profound sadness to comedy, and even the unchanging household setting are markers that guide connections between the audience and the piece. 

Uncle Vanya, with its pared-down setting and little action to drive the plot, is built around conversations and confrontations between eight characters. The performances in this production are excellent — they are emotionally intense but none are caricatures. Lindsey Zelli stands out as Yelena, the professor’s young wife, powerfully portraying a woman who is wry and capable and stifled by life. Zelli’s fully-realized performance stands up against the desire and frustration Chekhov’s characters each project onto Yelena. In the title role, Bryan Austin expertly tackles significant, frequent dynamic shifts between Vanya’s comic bravado and heartbreaking fury. His performance is believable and moving, injecting moments of quiet, thoughtful dissatisfaction that render Vanya real and truly sympathetic. Calie Bain as Sonya provides a crucial earnestness and kindness to the chemistry of the production. The Gottwald Playhouse is an incredible venue for this play, and the staging makes use of the theater’s intimate setting and challenges the audience to confront the rawness of the work by leaving no room to hide. 

Though misery permeates Uncle Vanya, the production really is very funny. My favorites are the sort of understated and exasperated laugh lines — the ones that seem like you’re witnessing conversations between people who are both exhausted and invigorated by each other, with decades of history behind them. James Ricks’ clever sound design and Reed West’s phenomenal set generate an environment where the unexpected and absurd break up the monotony of the characters’ existence in funny and moving ways. Multiple scenes featuring musical instruments are particularly memorable for how they deepen understanding of Chekhov’s characters and disrupt life on the estate. 

I loved the set, which creates space for forms of interaction that silently communicate so much between the eight characters. The trees behind the estate, with leaves individually swapped at intermission to correspond with the changing seasons, are poignant visual reminders of time passing and ending. And while the interior of Serebryakov’s estate suits the play’s turn of the century Russian setting, something about the eclectic, mismatched, kind-of-thrifted look of the furniture struck me as modern and familiar. With messaging about climate change, urban cost of living, and anxiety about social and economic mobility layered into the script — and with the modern language in Conor McPherson’s adaptation — all these components work together and let the play exist in both moments. The result is a layered production that considers both hope and dread when faced with the challenges of menial everyday life and making sense of one’s legacy.        

Uncle Vanya runs through February 12 at the Gottwald Playhouse at Dominion Energy Center. A firearm is discharged on stage during the production, and the language and content may be most appropriate for teenagers and adults.

For tickets and showtimes, go here.

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