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Theater Review: "Uncle Vanya"

Chekhov's theatre of mood at St. Martin's University

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At intermission, one of the patrons at St. Martin's University's production of Uncle Vanya said, "I hope there's a happy ending."

"Sweetheart, please," his companion replied, laughing. "This is Chekhov. Chekhov never ends happily."

Even casual theatergoers are familiar with the name of turn-of the-20th-century Russian playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Few, however, have seen any of his plays. This is the first I've reviewed in five years; I've only seen one other in my whole life. It's not that Chekhov fell out of favor with theater practitioners. His plays are still admired for their construction and realism. Director David Hlavsa even had access to a new English translation by Annie Baker, herself a recent Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright for The Flick. The New York Times referred to Ms. Baker's translation as "funky" and "fresh," and, I suppose, as translations of 117-year-old Russian drama go, that's a fair assessment. I certainly wasn't prepared for Dyadya Vanya to call someone a seven-letter insult still unprintable in most newspapers. Even so, there's a reason theaters shy away from Chekhov's brand of realistic drama: it's sad and boring.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you cry, hold on for one goshdarn minute. That's the reaction one tends to receive when one dares to dis Chekhov, Shakespeare, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which test paying customers' patience. Let's be honest, though: those pauses can get awfully damn long. They give us time to reflect, but also allow much-needed tension to drain from moments of conflict. In Vanya, as in several of the Russian master's plays, the theme is that even 19th-century Russians who weren't starving were dying of boredom and a crushing sensation of the meaninglessness of life. In present times, we address such ennui with judicious applications of cable TV.

Still, if you can push through Chekhov's suffocating weight of existential Siberian despair, there's laudable work to be found in St. Martin's production. Hlavsa coaxes dimensional performances from undergrad actors, especially Grace Caruso as Vanya's downtrodden daughter, Sonya. I also enjoyed Jalen Penn's offhanded work as Astrov, a doctor who doesn't believe no means no, and Mandy Baker's underplayed efforts as Nanny Marina. Ryan Miller conveys the title character's frustration and humor. Unfortunately, a pervading lack of urgency took its toll on this and several other performances. I suspect it contributed to the frequent reappearance of my old nemesis, tearless crying. A disorganized scene change in Act I didn't help.

Jeannie Beirne's alley-configured set is both attractive and functional, but I wondered why realistic furniture and props sat beneath empty picture frames. (This seemed symbolic, but mostly of an unfinished thought.) Ricky German's costumes emphasize class and other distinctions between characters, especially Caruso's Sonya and Rebecca Franklin's Yelena Sonya. The strums of balalaikas, along with lighting designer Olivia Burlingame's gobos and Thomas Dakan's sonic windscapes, complete an otherwise cohesive stage milieu.

UNCLE VANYA, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, through Nov. 22, St. Martin's University, 5000 Abbey Way SE, Lacey, $7-$12, 360.438.4345

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