Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Uncle Vanya
(© Lisa Tomasetti)
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Uncle Vanya
(© Lisa Tomasetti)
The lives of desperation are anything but quiet in that much-visited Russian farmhouse in the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, now playing its sole American engagement at the Kennedy Center. And it's Hungarian director Tamas Ascher's singular vision of the classic play -- as well as the extraordinary work of stars Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett -- that practically demands a visit to the nation's capital.

Rarely have I seen this group of Chekhovian characters, among them the hard-working Vanya (Roxburgh), his dutiful if frustrated niece Sonya (an unusually forthright Hayley McElhinney), visiting country doctor Astrov (Hugo Weaving), and especially Sonya's gorgeous stepmother Yelena (Blanchett), so trapped in their isolation, frustrated by their inability to find personal happiness, and, above all, confined not just by their physical surroundings but by their own, arguably misguided notions of fidelity and obedience.

No wonder they often act like caged animals, prone to unusually hysterical outbursts -- even the usually meek Sonya screams quite often -- fits of physical and emotional violence, and even the occasional inability to stay steady on one's own feet. Their nerve endings practically burst from their skins, and not even copious shots of vodka can do much to calm them.

No one seems less at home -- in the dacha or in one's own body -- than Blanchett, who turns in another fearless performance. She (as both character and actress) seemingly demands attention every moment she's on stage (rather like her Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire), even when Chekhov might have preferred she remain a bit more in the background.

Dressed in a series of simply stunning 1950ish ensembles (by costumer Gyorgyi Szackas), Blanchett's Yelena is no mere mannequin. She's clearly a highly intelligent woman -- you believe her when she says she married the much-older Serebryakov (a perfectly pompous John Bell) because she was impressed with his love of learning -- but her lack of real purpose has left her more interested in herself than anything else, and barely at that. Indeed, while Blanchett's Yelena exhibits true hints of feelings for both Astrov and Vanya, finding love or even real companionship hardly seems a priority; distraction of any sort is the name of her game.

Conversely, Roxburgh's passion for Yelena is deeply palpable. The actor, who delivers a splendidly nuanced performance, is more conventionally attractive than some others who have played the role and less the buffoon; and so, it's even more heartbreaking that he didn't fully pursue Yelena years before because of his belief that he must devote himself to his late sister's estate.

Weaving captures Astrov's charisma and ability for greatness, but there's something remarkably disconcerting about his own semi-jaded world view; he clearly cares more about the trees he could save than anyone in his orbit, be it his patients, Sonia, or even Yelena. In the other supporting roles, Oscar winner Jacki Weaver (completely unrecognizable) makes the strongest impression as the worldly-wise housekeeper Marina.

One wishes Ascher had made perhaps a firmer decision as to when the play is set -- and why (judging by the radio, the Corningware percolator, and the refrigerator, it's probably the 1950s). And I admit to not really understanding the choice of music (or what kind of music it is) played during the scene changes. But those are more distractions than serious flaws.

Indeed, it's Ascher's ability to zero in on the play's emotional truths that remain in the mind. When late in the play, Vanya steals some of Astrov's morphine, one finally realizes it may not be that he wants to kill himself, but that he's simply looking for some prolonged peace and quiet. Indeed, when things finally return to "normal" at play's end, one becomes acutely aware of how much Vanya has become someone who can only fully live, or at least survive, in silence.