Some days, the futility of life climbs on your shoulders and rides you into the ground. On those occasions, you may crumble or you may laugh at the absurdity of it all. In either case, the weight is felt and our chuckles mix with fear and resignation.
We see the laughs in “Uncle Vanya,” which opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater. We do not sense, however, that these denizens of rural Russia feel the crushing burden of existence.
The production, directed by Joe Dowling, has ample atmosphere, histrionics and a beautiful period set. What we miss is the heart of this sad play — a chance to smile and wince and cry along with Vanya. There is too much pretense for us to believe in their exhaustion with life.
Dowling arrays this play on a gingerbread set by Michael Hoover (how nice it is to see Hoover getting a chance to design here). Vanya (Andrew Weems) and Sonya (Emily Gunyou Halaas) run this comfortably shabby estate. Sonya’s father, the professor (Robert Dorfman) and his second wife, Yelena (Valeri Mudek), have come to live at the farm and the professor pompously proposes to sell the land and live off the proceeds. This sends Vanya over the edge and ultimately things are left as they were.
Irish playwright Brian Friel’s adaptation captures Chekhov’s notion that this play is about tired and regretful lives.
Vanya is infatuated with Yelena. Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov (John Catron), the country physician. Both adorations are unrequited, and even Yelena’s flirtation with Astrov falls victim to her sense that security with the professor outweighs dangerous passion.
The cynicism of Weems’ Vanya seems oversized. He’s the kind of guy who takes up a lot of space with his jokes and florid behavior — at times evoking that overwrought stuff Jack Lemmon did at the end of his career.
When he ultimately breaks down, we aren’t sure whether he really feels the crush, or he’s just having one of his moods.
Gunyou Halaas also has an awareness of how she looks and sounds. Never does one feel the deep bond she and Vanya must share. Even in the heartbreaking conclusion, she speaks to convince herself of a better life in the world to come, rather than to comfort Vanya. Catron’s Astrov also works on the surface. He brings the role no ease or charisma.
Dorfman and Mudek fare better. Dorfman’s professor has an overbearing cruelty and air of privilege, yet he admits the wound that life has inflicted on him (“I regret my entire existence”) with real gravity.
Mudek is about presence and beauty, but she also animates Yelena with strength and intelligence. She is a real force.
This is not to argue for a dreary “Vanya.”
However, for these scenes to land with the biting humor and heart that Chekhov intended, we must believe it’s real and devastating. That isn’t the case here.