Stagestruck: Vanya in Vermont

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The irony of Anton Chekhov referring to his plays as “comedies” is often remarked. Most of his characters are bored to death and/or deeply unhappy, frustrated by love or circumstance or both, and his plays generally end with a bleak sense of hopelessness. But Linda McInerney, who’s directing the production of Uncle Vanya that plays this weekend at the Academy of Music, thinks she gets what the great Russian dramatist was driving at.

That Chekhovian mood of futility and discontent, she says, “is so modern, so Woody Allen, so Seinfeld and Larry David.” And it’s the play’s surprising modernity that attracted not only McInerney, but also this version’s translator, Annie Baker. An Amherst native, Baker is a shooting star in the new generation of American playwrights. She won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for The Flick, which takes place in a movie theater that’s awfully reminiscent of the old Amherst Cinema. Her Uncle Vanya also echoes her New England roots.

The script is in no way updated. It’s an idiomatic but faithful rendering of Chekhov’s text, set on a small agricultural estate in the Russian provinces where a fractious family gathers to learn the house is about to be sold. But as is evident in both the 2012 New York premiere and McInerney’s staging, Baker imagines it in a contemporary Vermont farmhouse, recalling her “Shirley, Vermont” trilogy of plays — even though there’s a steaming samovar on the table.

Hugh Hall’s set for this production consists of a small, tilted platform suspended in the surrounding darkness of the Academy’s cavernous stage, giving a sense of both isolation and claustrophobia to the desperate lives that inhabit it.

The dialogue’s modern vernacular (Vanya says of his nemesis, the self-serving Professor Serebryakov, “He just writes gibberish and bitches and complains”) reflects Baker’s desire “to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears in 1898.” Daniel Popowich, who plays Vanya with a world-weary stoop and a desperate energy, says, “As an actor, it’s been easy to learn the lines because it’s so colloquial,” compared with the stilted translations he read in college. McInerney adds, “It’s so true to Chekhov, and it’s so true to our foibles and absurdities and delights.”

McInerney points to another of the play’s surprising connections with our own age: its environmental concerns. Astrov, the country doctor (there’s always a lonely, sympathetic doctor in these plays), has an impassioned speech about the degradation of the land — a mirror of Chekhov’s own preoccupations and a prescient forewarning of today’s ecological crisis.

This weekend’s performances, says executive director Debra J’Anthony, represent another step in the theater’s commitment to original productions and women theater artists. In addition to the adapter and director, all but one of the key technical and design roles are filled by women.

The cast is a roll call of local pros and Valley veterans. In addition to Popowich, there’s Bill Stewart as the environmentalist doctor; Susanna Apgar as lonely, lovesick Sonya; Thom Griffin as the peremptory professor; Myka Plunkett as his discontented trophy wife; plus Jeannine Haas, Linda Putnam, Bill Dwight and Liam O’Shea as other characters tied to the estate in Chekhov’s tapestry of uneasy belonging.•

Bill Dwight photo

Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann.

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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