Theater review: Is work the answer?

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2011 - 2:22 PM

Anton Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya,” a meditation on wasted lives and frustration, gets a hopeful take in this fine staging.

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Craig Johnson, gesturing, plays the title role in Gremlin Theatre’s “Uncle Vanya.” At left is Marlin L. Rothe (Telyegin). Mo Perry (Sonya) is seated at center. At right are Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding (Marya) and David Rinzema (Alexander).

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If warm weekend breezes tempted you to loll idly in the sun, Anton Chekhov has the antidote.

"Work. That's what we must do, work," says the title character near the end of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." Stunned by recent events, Vanya desperately takes solace in the exhortations of his niece, Sonya, to go on living and working and enduring. For in this, she passionately comforts her uncle, we find our purpose and we will enjoy our reward in the next world.

Sonya's closing speech -- not to mention the mien of the actor playing the role -- indicates how a particular production intends to interpret "Uncle Vanya." For example, critic Eric Bentley -- arguing for an earthbound reality -- wrote that "work for these people is not a means to happiness but a drug that will help them to forget." Janice Stone's fine production at Gremlin Theatre wishes for itself more redemption and grace.

It is a choice that actor Mo Perry embraces with good-hearted decency and compassion. As Craig Johnson's Vanya sits exhausted and numb, Perry's Sonya cradles his head and encourages him to, yes, work and then find his rest. It is a moment of devastating poignancy that allows perhaps more hopefulness than Chekhov intended, but nonetheless seems true to his meditation on the tragic constancy of everyday life.

In "Uncle Vanya," we watch Chekhov at his best -- walking the tight wire between comedy and tragedy. Johnson rages like a harlequin; his Vanya packs a pistol during a tantrum against his pompous former brother-in-law, professor Alexander Serebryakov. Yet, in his verbal typhoons we realize that Vanya's hatred is aimed not only at this insufferable visitor to the country estate, but at himself -- for allowing his own bad choices and inertia to bully him into a wasted life.

Sonya, the professor's daughter from his first wife, cuts through the malaise with her homeostasis, even as she yearns hopelessly for Astrov, the provincial physician. But Astrov, and Vanya, covet Alexander's gorgeous icicle of a new wife, Elena.

Stone's actors are a mixed bag. Perry is nothing less than a transparent heart in Sonya, and Johnson nicely articulates Vanya's tragicomic frustration. Carl Schoenborn is OK, but he demands less attention than Astrov requires. Otherwise, why does Elena find him attractive? And as for Elena, Stephanie Cousins is a statue of stunning beauty who rarely exhibits much depth of understanding. To her credit, that works. David Rinzema wisely allows for Alexander's fatuous self-importance to speak for itself.

Gremlin, for a small theater, has excellent technical values. A. Emily Heaney's costumes make just the right statements of character here. Katharine Horowitz's sound and Debbie Tallen's lights feel essential but unobtrusive, and Tamatha Miller's set expresses the hazy uncertainty that hangs over the piece.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

  • UNCLE VANYA

    Who: By Anton Chekhov, adapted by Craig Johnson. Directed by Janice Stone.

    When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun.; also 8 p.m. April 11. Ends April 23.

    Where: Gremlin Theatre, 2400 W. University Av., St. Paul.

    TICKETS: $20, 651-228-7008. (Pay what you can, April 11).

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