Long before Sam Beckett puzzled us with his tramps waiting for life to happen; long before method actors found character in naturalistic mumbles; long before Seinfeld spun television episodes out of nothing, Anton Chekhov was skimming drama from the ordinary patterns of daily existence.
“Any idiot can face a crisis,” the Russian writer famously said. “It’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Nowhere does Chekhov test that statement more overtly than in “Uncle Vanya,” his second major play, which opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater.
Unlike his other plays, Chekhov did not subtitle “Vanya” as “A Comedy in Four Acts” or “A Drama in Four Acts.” He described it simply as “Scenes From a Country Life,” signaling less of a dramatic structure and more a collection of vignettes within the turgid rhythms of a few lazy days in the Russian countryside.
Chekhov’s was a theater of mood, pauses, action hinted at, occasional bursts of absurdity and aching human longing. They were not tragedies, such as those written by Ibsen — with whom he is often paired as the originators of modern drama. As critic Eric Bentley aptly noted, “In Chekhov, the terrible thing is that the surface of everyday life is itself a kind of tragedy.”
An old soul
Chekhov died at 44, a relatively young man, but he wrote with the wisdom of an old soul, from his observations: as a doctor he saw how the body worked as a mechanism; as a journalist and historian, he saw how Russian society worked with a cruel severity; as a member of a large family, he saw the dynamic theater of relationships.
“He is without exception my favorite playwright,” said Joe Dowling, who is mounting this production, the Guthrie’s first Chekhov since Dowling directed “Three Sisters” in 2003. “When you read his letters, he was one of the wittiest men, always seeing absurdities of life. That’s what I take away. This was a man who really knew that no one can go through life without a sense of humor.”
To that end, Dowling said, he is using a translation by playwright Brian Friel, which emphasizes the comedy. Critics and audiences often have seen the embers of Chekhov in Friel’s writing, and it is clear the Irishman has an affinity for the Russian.
The Guthrie’s cast includes Broadway actor Andrew Weems (as Vanya), John Catron, Valeri Mudek and Emily Gunyou Halaas.
“Uncle Vanya” was Chekhov’s second take on the same story. He earlier had written “The Wood Demon,” which referred to the character of Dr. Astrov — a country physician considered eccentric at the time for his fervent advocacy on behalf of the forests of Mother Russia. Today, we would think of him as an environmentalist prophet warning that as we consume nature, we consume ourselves.
“They were cutting down everything at that time,” Dowling notes. “Astrov is constantly thinking about what comes after us. Chekhov was so prescient about global warming.”
Vanya steps up
In his rewrite of “The Wood Demon,” Chekhov brought Vanya, the steward of his late sister’s estate, forward as the key figure. It is Vanya who is both most changed by the action of the play, and yet is left in the end most profoundly defeated.
His hope of love is dashed when he approaches the beautiful second wife of his brother-in-law. His attempts to shoot that brother-in-law (“my bitterest enemy”) fail. Vanya is left with nothing but years and years of life to look forward to.
Yet Chekhov held out a measure of kindness to Vanya through the presence of his niece, Sonya. In the play’s final scene, Sonya represents a divine grace, a healing balm and a promise of companionship to Vanya, the disillusioned cynic. Work is not so much a means of happiness and purpose as it is something to do to get through the day — to endure to a better place.
“Sonya’s desire to trust in the faith she believes in, that’s ultimately the message that Chekhov has to give,” Dowling said.
Which is odd because Chekhov rejected the Orthodox Christianity of his birth for atheism, and the religious grace of “Vanya” is found in none of the other three major plays.
“This is not Chekhov speaking,” wrote Bentley in an essay about “Vanya.” “It is an overwrought girl comforting herself with an idea.”
What might have been
This nuanced landscape is such a key part of Chekhov. He writes in sepia tones, not loud colors, and submerges his plot in daily life.
“I love Chekhov,” said actor Craig Johnson, who played Vanya for Gremlin Theatre in an adaptation he wrote. “All theater people love Chekhov. His characters are so rich and deep, and his voice is so ironic and sympathetic and nonjudgmental.”
For the volumes that Chekhov wrote — the short stories, the smaller farces, the newspaper columns and letters — he left us only four major works before dying of tuberculosis. The temptation is to imagine what more he might have written, given a long life. But just as it is for the characters he wrote, long life was not necessarily a guarantee of greater things.
“I look at Tennessee Williams, the genius that flowered in him for those great, great plays that changed American theater, and then the sad decline,” said Dowling. “There is a period of genius. In the broad spectrum of things, what more could Chekhov say than he already did?”