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Steven Skybell and Amanda Plummer
in Uncle Vanya
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
What does it mean to plant a tree? In Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, it means being called an idealist and a crank. Astrov has dedicated his adult life to the practice of medicine but everybody knows that his real passion is saving Russia's forests. He plants birch trees, imagining how they will benefit humanity in a thousand years. He takes pride in preventing future epidemics through a healthy environment and more breathable air. It's a thankless enterprise; in pre-Bolshevik Russia, people derided such passion and vision as eccentric. (How little things change!)

Uncle Vanya is a play about investment. The title character devotes half of his life to Professor Alexander Serebryakov: Vanya does the professor's research and works to sustain his country estate. The professor achieves academic fame with his help and wins the love of Vanya's sister, whom he weds; after she dies, Alexander marries the love of Vanya's life, Yelena Andreyevna. Vanya looks at all that he has invested in this professor -- his life, his love, his money, and his family. And, as the play begins, Vanya decides that it has all been a sham.

He's not the only character to take stock of his life during the play. The old, gout-ridden professor wonders whether anyone will remember his work; Yelena laments wasting her youth with a sick old man; Astrov doubts that anyone appreciates the pains he takes to save the forests; Sonya, the professor's daughter, regrets falling for Astrov because she feels unlovable; Maria, Vanya's mother, discovers political activism very late in life and wishes she had found her passion earlier.

But Chekhov had a talent for making tales of regret and sorrow seem humorous; his better works achieve a skillful balance between comedy and tragedy. The McCarter Theatre Center production of Uncle Vanya walks that line with grace, thanks in no small part to the efforts of its artistic director: Emily Mann, who became famous for her work on docudramas, uses her ear for natural dialogue to adapt this classic play. That and her strong direction serve the author well.

The actors that Mann has assembled help to make this production funny and deeply moving. With his gravelly voice and unkempt hair, Steven Skybell's Vanya seems burdened by the weight of the world; the character's resentments are evident. Amanda Plummer expertly portrays Sonya, her lilting voice communicating the girl's excitement.

Any Chekhov fan knows that his plays require a strong ensemble, and this cast is without a weak link. Georgine Hall embodies the nagging mother as she tells Vanya to be more like his nemesis professor; William McGuire's professor has a limp that is worthy of Richard III; Natacha Roi's Yelana clings to her shawl as if in mourning for her life; and Astrov's dreams of Russian forests are readable in Michael Siberry's eyes.

The servants provide memorable comic relief. Jonathan Hogan's foolish Telegin has the jerky mannerisms of a marionette. (Telegin's friends call him "Waffles" because of his pockmarked face, but the nickname also seems to call attention to the character's indirect manner.) Hogan plays such a convincing underdog that he draws laughs from the line, "My wife ran off with a lover." As the other servant, Marina, Isa Thomas has such command of her craft that she conveys a sense of character even through the act of knitting.

In Chekhov plays such as this one and The Cherry Orchard, trees symbolize the social change brought on by Russia's declining aristocracy; family names that have held power for generations could fall by revolution as easily as a birch falls by the ax. Set designer Michael Yeargen's giant arbors caused many double takes from the audience at the Vanya performance I attended; people couldn't believe how real they looked, or how beautiful. As for Myung Hee Cho's authentic period costumes, a lot of careful research has obviously gone into their creation.

Support for theater around the country is declining, and New Jersey's funding of the arts is in danger of being withdrawn entirely. At a time like this, the McCarter's Uncle Vanya is all the more to be cherished. In a sense, classic theater is an inheritance bequeathed by generations of great playwrights. Before Governor McGreevey gives arts funding the ax, let him see this production.

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