Review: ‘Uncle Vanya’ shines with unforced naturalism in Pasadena

Uncle Vanya may be the title character, but he’s not the hero of Anton Chekhov’s play. In “Uncle Vanya” there are no heroes, but people who are lovable – not only in spite of their imperfections, but also because of them.

Michael Michetti’s production, which opened at the Pasadena Playhouse last weekend, doesn’t deviate from the edges of the personalities crashing into each other like a bumper car. These “scenes from country life,” as the play is subtitled, are filled with anger, longing, frustration, and endless complaints of boredom.

The family estate, managed by Vanya, a middle-aged man wallowing in remorse, and his unmarried niece Sonya, has been in full swing since Sonya’s retired father, Professor Serebryakov, arrived with his beautiful and much younger second wife Elena is . Vanya falls madly in love with her. Astrov, a doctor with a passion for forest conservation and vodka, is more lustfully aroused, much to the chagrin of poor Sonya, whose heart remains true to him.

This string of desires leaves everyone perplexed, but it’s only when Serebryakov suggests putting the property up for sale that Vanya, feeling betrayed by his brother-in-law’s callousness, takes up arms. But since this is a tragicomedy and Vanya is a lousy shot, the play doesn’t turn into tragedy. The laughter, however, gives way to something more sinister and spiritual.

A collaboration between playwright Richard Nelson and the veteran team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, this translation of Uncle Vanya premiered in a magnificent production at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2018, directed by Nelson himself. There, the audience had the opportunity to wear listening devices to increase the listening effect of the intimate production.

Michetti’s commendable, if not entirely fixed, staging is rather traditional in its theatricality. The stage has been extended into the theater to bring it closer to the audience, and the actors strive for naturalness, but the whisper quality Nelson has achieved is unachievable in this larger space.

Still, the ensemble is at its best when actors respond to each other—when they behave rather than act. The roles aren’t all thoroughly fleshed out and the abridged script creates holes that the actors can’t fill here, but the characters’ shaky relationships make for an engaging drama.

As Vanya, Hugo Armstrong, who looks like he just got out of bed, gives a performance of wonderful spontaneity. The text, spoken with ironic subordinate clauses, sounds like subtext when it comes out of his mouth. In fact, every word spoken measures the gap between who this Vanya wants to be and who he actually is.

There is no attempt to refine the character. When Vanya is alone with Astrov (Brandon Mendez Homer), her banter has a locker room vibe. Goat-eyed Elena (Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz), Armstrong’s Vanya is clearly not after a marriage of real people.

Angry at Serebryakov (Brian George), who has casually announced the sale of an estate on which he has put his money and his life, Vanya cries plaintively that he could have been a Schopenhauer or a Dostoyevsky if he wasn’t so stupid himself would have renounced. But this Vanya obviously doesn’t believe a word he says. Armstrong’s realism is stunning, but the uncouth interpretation of the character has a distorting impact on the play.

Contrary to Jay O. Sanders’ portrayal of Vanya in the 2018 premiere of this translation, there is little sense that Vanya and Elena share a soulful connection. Sanders’ Vanya was deeply touched by Elena’s beauty. Armstrong’s Vanya’s grin lingers on the surface.

Yakura-Kurtz, a stand-in for another actor, is seductive in a way that doesn’t always feel very lived-in. Part of the problem is the age difference between her character and Armstrong’s Vanya. Elena is not touched by Vanya because she never takes him seriously as a lover.

The chemistry between Yakura-Kurtz’s Elena and Mendez Homer’s Astrov isn’t just more sexually alive — it seems to have a lot more depth. This imbalance takes away the emotional weight of Vanya’s devastation.

Sabina Zúñiga Varela’s performance as Sonya is the most strikingly original in the production. This young woman, who admires Astrov but cannot passionately love, is unsentimentally endowed with a strength and intelligence grounded in Chekhov’s forgiving wisdom.

An elderly woman looks at a man in profile on stage.

Brandon Mendez Homer and Jayne Taini in Uncle Vanya.

(Jeff Lorch)

Though not given much to do, the astringent Anne Gee Byrd lends Marya, Vanya’s bluestocking mother, a feisty, antagonistic presence. Jayne Taini deserves a Stanislavsky Award for her portrayal of Marina, the elderly nurse who lovingly cares for all these colicky adults.

I once taught a playwriting class where we read Uncle Vanya strictly through the eyes of Marina, a minor character who proves Stanislavsky’s dictum that there are no small roles, only small actors. Taini gave me the sacred substance of this beautiful piece.

The scenic design by Tesshi Nakagawa draws attention to the pretty dining area in the background. Unfortunately, the geography of the backstage area is patchy, leading to some fuzziness in the block. Wendell C. Carmichael’s costumes do not create a coherent theatrical world.

So not an ideal “Uncle Vanya”, but a worthy one. In fact, I’d love to see it again to discover the acting dynamic deepening, as it always seems to do in Chekhov.

‘Uncle Vanya’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8pm Wednesday-Friday, 2pm and 8pm Saturday, 2pm Sunday
Tickets: Start at $30
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or
Duration: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including a break) Review: ‘Uncle Vanya’ shines with unforced naturalism in Pasadena

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