.Say Uncle: Chekhov classic at Roustabout

Non-Russians might find it odd that Chekhov considered Uncle Vanya a comedy.

But though Russia has a rich, nuanced culture that gave us the best use of potatoes since the Inca, if you ask a Russian what it means to be Russian, there is a high likelihood they will say, “To suffer is to be Russian.” Then they might laugh because, “What else can you do?”

Conor McPherson’s new translation appreciates the humor in suffering, doing an excellent job of turning it into a concept that non-Russians understand. Roustabout Theater has a production running in the Carston Cabaret at the Luther Burbank Center through March 31.

On a rural estate in 1899, Vanya (Bill Davis) manages his late sister’s estate. He supports his niece Sonya (Dale Leonheart), his mother Mariya (Sheila Lichirie), nanny/housekeeper Nana (Tamar Cohn) and friend/estate worker Telegin (Peter Downey). Occasionally his friend Dr. Astrov (Jared N. Wright) spends a quiet evening with them. Into this bucolic stability enters Sonya’s ridiculously pompous father, Professor Serebryakov (John Craven), and his much younger bride Yelena (Ilana Niernberger).

Complicating matters, Sonya and Yelena were friends before Yelena became Sonya’s stepmother. Vanya has been in love with Yelena for years. Sonya loves Astrov. Astrov loves Yelena. Yelena wants Astrov but won’t betray Sonya or leave her obnoxious husband.

John Craven is perfectly cast as the hilarious Serebryakov. Cohn’s Nana is both funny and comforting. Davis’ Vanya is fun but inconsistent. Niernberger’s Yelena is good, but her choices tend to be a little too safe. Leonheart, on the other hand, makes bold choices with Sonya that with a lesser actor might have come off as infantile. But Leonhart is so present and grounded that her Sonya displays a self-aware vulnerability that is often missing from the character.

Wright delivers the stand-out performance in this production. Astrov is a tricky role, but Wright was always believably natural without losing any of the nuance or humor.

Director Clark Lewis’ choice to stage the play so that the audience traps the characters into a claustrophobic world is very smart, but doesn’t always work out in terms of keeping actors open to the audience.

If you love Chekhov, this production has a lot to like. If you’re new to Russian literature, this is a good introductory play. Just remember if in doubt whether something is heartbreaking or hilarious, the answer is probably both.

But Chekhov would want you to laugh.

‘Uncle Vanya’ runs through March 31 in the Carsten Cabaret at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa. Fri-Sat, 7:30pm; Sat & Sun, 2pm. $24-$30. 707.546.3600. roustabout-theater.org.


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