Tim Hopper as Vanya in the Chicago premiere of Annie Baker's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Robert Falls, at the Goodman Theatre.
Tim Hopper as Vanya in the Chicago premiere of Annie Baker's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, directed by Robert Falls, at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

No playwright can shift from comedy to tragedy with the ease or precision of Anton Chekhov. With the right translation, his work can be an ode to the contradictions of human existence: the mundane and the profound, coexisting perfectly onstage. Fortunately, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker's adaptation of Uncle Vanya, now running at the Goodman Theatre, is free of the stilted phrasing and grandiloquence that plague lesser translations of Chekhov. The dialogue is naturalistic and simple, without becoming too modern or too American.

Uncle Vanya begins with the arrival of Professor Serebryakov (David Darlow), a petty hypochondriac who has retired to the countryside with his beautiful young wife, Yelena (Kristen Bush). The Professor's daughter, Sonya (Caroline Neff), owns and operates the estate that she inherited from her mother, along with her Uncle Vanya (Tim Hopper). Sonya is hopelessly in love with the local country doctor Astrov (Marton Csokas), but Astrov and Vanya are both infatuated with Yelena, who, for her own part, is interested in nothing. Country life bores her, hard work is distasteful to her, and she feels no passion for the husband who once captured her heart. She fits right in with the miserable pastoral crowd, always complaining and never making changes.

Expertly directed by Robert Falls, the parade of losers in Uncle Vanya has never been more fascinating than here at the Goodman. Hopper's strong performance as Vanya is histrionic, giving every slight irritation the full weight of despair. As his wounds pile up, his final fit of anger is completely believable and more than a little satisfying. He is matched by Kristen Bush's languid Yelena, who pads around the estate like a housecat, wearing gorgeous, perfectly fitted costumes by Ana Kusmanic. Darlow provides an overbearing air as her husband, Serebrykov.

As Astrov, the doctor who loves Vanya and longs for Yelena, Csokas is intensely charismatic and plays an excellent drunk, shuffling over the exquisite set like a dancing bear as he sings shamelessly in Russian, accompanied by Alžan Pelesić and Larry Neumann Jr., as servants Yefim and Telegin, respectively. And pining after Astrov, Sonya is played with candor and restraint by Caroline Neff.

An ardent conservationist, Astov grouses that modern industry has brought about the "gradual and undeniable degradation" of the once-beautiful Russian countryside. That degradation is strikingly apparent in the massive, magnificent set by Todd Rosenthal, an erstwhile stately manor that has been left to rot. The only truly beautiful spot onstage is the glimpse of the forest seen through the open doors, perfectly lit through sunshine, clouds, and rain by Keith Parham. The rain brings an excellent opportunity for sound designer Richard Woodbury, who combines practical and recorded sound effects seamlessly.

Like Astrov's countryside, each character in Uncle Vanya has, gradually and undeniably, degraded. An intellectual becomes a shut-in. A beautiful bride develops into a dissatisfied housewife. A dutiful daughter succumbs to self-pity. But through Chekhov, Annie Baker, and Robert Falls, these characters have humor, resonance, and emotional heft. This production of Uncle Vanya is an absolute must-see.