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Uncle Jack

Playwright Michael Hammond transports Chekhov's Uncle Vanya from a rural Russian estate to a theater company in the Berkshires.

John Kooi, Will Lyman, and Nancy E. Carroll in Uncle Jack, written and directed by Michael Hammond, at the Boston University Theatre.
(© Kalman Zabarsky)

Taking to heart the familiar adage that instructs an author to write about what he knows, Michael Hammond has dug into the many years he spent at Shakespeare and Company to fashion his first full-length play, Uncle Jack. An experienced performer and director, Hammond knows his Chekhov well enough to understand the characters from the Russian dramatist's masterwork, Uncle Vanya, and mirror their relationships and emotional tone to structure his work. Leaving nothing to chance in terms of his intentions, he has also directed the world premiere of Uncle Jack, produced by Boston Playwrights' Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance, both based at Boston University where Hammond serves on the faculty.

Designer Courtney Nelson has transformed the intimate space of Studio 210 upstairs at the Boston University Theater on Huntington Avenue into a shabby country house, surrounded on four sides by a magnificent stand of trees, as if to re-create the first home of Shakespeare and Company at the Edith Wharton House in Lenox. Hammond, as an actor who knows the talents of his colleagues in the Boston-based community, has cast an impeccable ensemble in the roles of the family and friends locked together over decades of discontent. Though the dialogue is more than plentiful, the actors never fail in their minute concentration on each other and deep mining of their characters.

Like the title character in Chekhov's play, Uncle Jack is a disappointed man. He has spent his life at this small summer theater in the service of his former brother-in-law, Derek, a pompous, demanding man who is the artistic director. Jack's beloved sister, Derek's first wife, has died, leaving their daughter, Sonya, to live on the property and work with her uncle. Derek and his much younger, beautiful second wife, Elena, travel the world, returning to the Berkshires only in time for the summer season. Other characters include Wolfe, a local doctor, amateur environmentalist, and close friend of the family, and Tug, the caretaker on the estate. Clare, the longtime dramaturg, seems to represent the voice of reason.

The play opens with a scene straight out of Chekhov, with Clare and Jack drinking iced tea on the terrace while they wait for the summer visitors to return. When the characters assemble, the tensions are laid bare. Jack and Wolfe, both entranced by the indolent Elena, vie for her attention. Sonya is in love with Wolfe but he has no interest in her. Derek, now old, ill and cranky, thinks of no one's needs but his own.

The action unfolds along the lines of Chekhov's work, with one major exception. Jack was once an actor of great talent — or so he believes. He lost his nerve onstage one night long ago and turned instead to backstage work, a decision he considered wasted his life. In his second-act monologue, he blames Derek for tamping down the fires of his calling while making him a slave to the older man's wishes. Jack's adoration of Elena further fuels his anger. When Derek proposes closing down the theater and selling the estate, Jack sees that he and Sonya will be evicted from their longtime home. Endowing Chekhov's characters with outsize theatrical personalities works well, especially in explaining the melancholic Jack's overly dramatic solution to his problems.

John Kooi anchors the ensemble with a compelling performance as Uncle Jack, alternately bored and seething as he sees how he has been used. Michael Kaye as Wolfe understands the futility of his life, but finds refuge in alcohol and cynicism. Veteran actor, Will Lyman, in the role of Derek, is the picture of the self-engaged artist beyond his prime, but loath to leave center stage, while Nancy E. Carroll is an equally assured match as Clare. With the attention of a lioness devouring her prey, the glamourous Madeleine Lambert as Elena gobbles up the hopes of her step-daughter, Sonya, portrayed by the young Maria DeCotis. Tim Spears as the eccentric Tug and DeCotis perform a charming series of songs and ukulele-strumming to cover the changes of scene.

It's not too much of a stretch to see Hammond as Jack, bemoaning the loss of his professional fortunes some years ago. But like a true theater professional, Hammond remains behind the footlights, finding solace by dramatizing his performer past and behind-the-scenes present. The actors must be given credit for holding the attention of the audience during the performance, but one wonders if Hammond's play adds anything more to the Chekhovian theme about the fate of people who cannot change, no matter their disaffection with their lives.