After the show last night I was waiting for a bridge to go down on the Milwaukee River. A couple of people who were at the show (including a staggeringly talented actress who wasn’t in it) were discussing how depressing it was. It honestly took me a bit off-guard. I don’t really think of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya as being depressing. I mean...it IS depressing, yes...but I don’t think of it as being depressing. Dale Gutzman’s adaptation of the drama which runs at the Off the Wall Theatre this month plays-up the romantic end of the story, which makes for a sweepingly dark love story.
As directed and adapted by Gutzman Vanya feels like Chekhov by way of Jane Austen with shades of A Raisin in the Sun. The deeper socio-political allegory that rest and wrestle at the center of Chekhov’s drama are softened in an adaptation that focusses squarely on the deeply emotional human drama in a romantic entanglement between four characters.
Randall T. Anderson plays a deeply charismatic Dr. Astrov. The weariness around the edges of Anderson’s performance amplify the listless restlessness of a man who is desperately waiting for something to happen while immersing himself deeper and deeper in alcoholism. The charm, wit and virtue of a vegetarian environmentalist from the early 20th century (way ahead of his time) is sparklingly clear in Anderson’s performance, making the tragedy of his obsession all the more heartbreaking.
Alicia Rice is captivating as the good doctor’s obsession--the beautiful married woman named Elena who plays host to an endless restlessness all her own. Rice cultivates an irresistible magnetism at the heart of the drama as she struggles with her own attraction to the doctor. It’s something she can only truly embrace once she has found an unsteady friendship with a young woman named Sonya.
Jenny Kosek has a quietly fragile altruism about her in the role of Sonya. Sonya cares deeply for the Doctor. She’s as taken with him as he is with the Elena. Sonya’s intellectual compatibility with the doctor is lost on a man who is in no way attracted to her. Kosek sternly plays the pragmatic, active end of love towards him nonetheless...admiring him from across the room as the rest of the ensemble rotates through various aggressions.
David Flores delivers a characteristically complex and engaging performance as Vanya himself. Flores summons a presence somewhere between valiance and cowardice as an aging man dealing with all that could have been. Flores delivers on aggression and passion in his portrayal of Vanya’s unrequited love for Elena. Flores is both ugly-monstrous and inspiringly (almost heroically) honest as an aging near-nihilist who has almost lost everything. His presence draws the romantic entanglement with the other three central characters into a very sharp reality onstage.
The stage itself feels like a dark, little shoebox diorama of emotional pain. The Off the Wall has placed the show in an asymmetrical tennis court-style seating arrangement. The bulk of the audience sits on the traditional side of the stage. There are a couple of rows on the other side. (When I first got in, I’d seen the aforementioned staggeringly talented actress on the other side of the stage and got a little excited that she was in the show...until I realized that she was just in the audience.) With only a couple of rows on the other side of the stage, there IS a bit of a strange effect of having faces lit that are very close to the drama and not at all involved in the show. The intimacy of the production is very cool, but the emotional incarceration of Chekhov’s classic is compromised a bit by the seating arrangement of an otherwise deeply entertaining.
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Vanya runs through Sep. 29 on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.