At Pasadena Playhouse, the radical relevance of Anton Chekhov

The climax of playwright Anton Chekhov’s modern-realist masterpiece Uncle Vanya occurs when the title character, in a fit of despondency, draws a pistol on his idol. He fires point-blank and says, “Bang!” then after a pause, “Missed him! Missed it again!” Then he throws the revolver away and says, “Oh, what am I doing? What am I doing?”

That’s about as close as anyone can act in a play that doesn’t feature any of the high stakes or intense conflict that were popular in the 1890s when it was written. Instead, it emphasizes almost plotless existential crises and soul-searching introspection. Tolstoy reportedly asked, “Where’s the drama? It’s not going anywhere.” Chekhov called it a comedy.

When a new translation of Uncle Vanya premiered at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2018, it drew rave reviews, including one in The Times notice a smoother conversational tone in speech. This production, directed by Richard Nelson, is currently not the one at the Pasadena Playhouse. It is a new production of the same translation, directed by Michael Michetti and starring Hugo Armstrong.

“They brought it to life in a way that felt very playable theatrically,” Michetti says of the lyrics, which eliminate Waffles, a secondary character, and streamline dialogue. “Some of the older translations feel academic, but this language is a combination of what is theatrically playable and is Chekhov’s intention.”

The director and his team also sought to bring more intimacy to the play. They removed the first two rows in the playhouse to bring the action a few feet closer to the audience.

“Uncle Vanya” could be described as a play about nothing. Vanya lives on the estate of his widowed brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, and manages it with the help of his niece Sonya. When the professor comes to visit with his much younger new bride Elena, Vanya is entranced. Likewise Dr. Astrov taking care of the sick professor. Most of the time is spent brooding, ranting and tormenting, much like life, making it a radical departure.

“It was very revolutionary of Chekhov to suddenly dump normal people and have a regular conversation,” says Armstrong, who plays Vanya. “There’s something about the translation that plays so well with the musicality of it. Maybe they’re finishing half a sentence, maybe they’re talking about something they don’t want to talk about. Subtext is hugely important. And the way Michael approaches that is a very realistic conversation.” This brings the action closer to viewers by having monologues spoken directly to them.

Husband and wife Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are PEN award winners for their translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, just one of several Russian novels they have tackled. With playwright and director Richard Nelson (best known for his “Apple Family” plays at Public in New York) they have delivered a “Vanya” that reinvigorates the text.

“You’re watching this piece now and you’re listening to Astrov’s discussion of environmental issues, and it may have been written last week. It’s about class differences and the kind of entitlement that comes from that,” says Michetti. “He was so ahead of his time and continues to speak to our time.”

costumed "Uncle Vanya" Performers are gathered around a table on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Uncle Vanya cast members, from left: Hugo Armstrong, Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz, Sabina Zúñiga Varela, Jane Taini and Brandon Mendez Homer at the Pasadena Playhouse.

(Jeff Lorch)

Vanya, who has devoted most of his life to the estate, believing the professor is doing a thorough job, realizes his idol is just another mediocrity. Shaken by the prospect of a wasted life, he is forced to reconsider his future path.

Like Chekhov’s characters isolated at the estate, many people have had to reevaluate their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some left their jobs in search of better opportunities during the “great retirement” period.

“People who’ve lived a life in a groove have stopped to consider if this is their best life and wondered if the choices they’ve made are the right ones and if it’s too late to make new ones making decisions,” says Michetti. “There was a lot of introspection because the circumstances of our world permitted or even required it. Vanya ends up being pessimistic about whether life will offer him another chapter.”

Michetti and Armstrong have previously worked together on readings, but never on a production like Uncle Vanya. The 6-foot-4 actor and part-time manual worker at the donkey farm auditioned for the role of Dr. Astrov before but got the call for Vanya instead.

“I was never attracted to the character because he’s so openly hurt. I don’t want to be around,” says Armstrong, who happens to be the opposite body type of actors typically associated with Vanya. At first he couldn’t picture it, but then he came across a photo of Jay O. Sanders, a big guy like himself, playing the role in San Diego.

He began to think about the physical demands on Vanya, who runs the estate single-handedly and even calls himself an ox. Plus there’s the added poignancy of seeing a big guy mentally limping. “He should be a big guy. I think that contributes to making him feel out of place,” says Armstrong. “As a tall person, you feel that the world isn’t your size, that it wasn’t really made for you.”

‘Uncle Vanya’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8pm Wednesday to Friday, 2pm and 8pm Saturday, 2pm Sunday until June 26th
Tickets: Start at $30
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or
Duration: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including a break) At Pasadena Playhouse, the radical relevance of Anton Chekhov

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