During a stifling hot summer, on a decaying estate in the Russian countryside, the arrival of a renowned Professor and his glamorous second wife brings physical and emotional turmoil to the relatives and servants who work the estate's monotonous lives. This is the core setting for Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, brought to vibrant life by the Sydney Theatre Company under the brilliant direction of the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher. It is an incredible opportunity for Washington DC theater connoisseurs that the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is hosting the exclusive engagement of this thrilling production.
Chekhov can be notorious in the wrong hands. Mr. Ascher has shepherded this tight ensemble into nine brilliant performances. Uncle Vanya is at times, poignant, passionate, melodramatic and, above all, funny. This play cries out to embrace the inherent humor in the script, and Co-Artistic Director Andrew Upton's translation brings all the emotional nuances vibrantly to the surface guided with a steady hand by Mr. Tomas' very physical direction.
What is glorious is watching the gradual wearing down of each of the main characters' emotional barriers for only then can the passion and humor, frequently physically expressed, burst forth in torrents like the storm which dominates the second half of act one. The play begins with lighting (Nick Schlieper) and sound (Paul Charlier) that suggests the oppressive heat of this long summer. For 25 years, Uncle Vanya has managed the estate for his former brother-in-law, Serebryakov, financing his intellectual lifestyle, while also raising the professor's plain daughter, Sonia. The arrival of the Professor and his young wife, Yelena, has completely disrupted the peaceful, if dull work of the estate as everyone must change their habits to accommodate the Professor's whims, whether caused by his gout or his changing of the dining hours. Every male is enchanted by Yelena from Vanya to the doctor, Astrov, who finds himself drawn to visiting the estate daily, on the excuse that he is treating Serebryakov, but really because he is under the spell of Yelena. As the inhabitants suffer from the heat and exhaustion, desires surface, from Sonia's love for Astrov to Vanya's contempt for Serebryakov. When Serebryakov announces he wishes to sell the estate, callously disregarding the years of work that Vanya, Sonia and the servants have dilligently performed all these years to finance his lifestyle, all hell breaks loose.
The nine company members are simply marvelous. Each role is carefully brought fully to life. From the small role of the Laborer, played with silently burning contempt by Andrew Tighe, to Vanya's mother, the sycophant Maria (Sandy Gore) who worships Serebryakov even as he threatens to destroy her home, there are no small actors here. Jackie Weaver makes the nurse, Marina, the calm at the center of the storm. Anthony Phelan's Telegin is dim to the drama enveloping him, yet ever trying to please everyone.
John Bell makes you completely understand the proletariat's contempt for the intelligentsia. Mr. Bell is oblivious to everyone's needs, but his own making an excellent antagonist. Cate Blanchett is a glowing flame that lights several damaging fires as she navigates the courting of herself by both Vanya and, Astrov, the latter of whom she tries desperately to resist her own attraction to him. Ms. Blanchett navigates delicately Yelena's unlikable side as she befriends and betrays her stepdaughter, Sonia.
Hayley McElhinney is complex and heartbreaking as the plain Sonia. Only noticed by the others when she is needed for their purposes, Sonia aches with the yearning to be beautiful and the center of attention like her stepmother. Ms. Elhinney wears her emotions openly, yet never crosses into caricature.
Hugo Weaving is a dynamo as Dr. Astrov. Called upon to take his physicality to the extreme, he never rings false upon the stage. Whether drunkenly dancing or leaping with a bounce after a fall, Mr. Weaving is magnetic. It is very easy to see why Sonia and Yelena are drawn to him.
Richard Roxburgh's Vanya is exhausted, yet passionate. His Vanya has lived patiently with the burdens placed on him by his callow brother-in-law, yet the disruption of this intrusive visit breaks down his emotional barricade. When Vanya erupts whether in anger or while declaring his passion for Yelena, Mr. Roxburgh is riveting. It is a tour-de-force performance.
This is a strictly limited engagement that closes on August 27, 2011. Do not miss one of the theatrical highlights of 2011.
The Sydney Theatre Company's production of Uncle Vanya will be performed in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC through August 27, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.Kennedy-center.org