If an American theater award were ever conceived to celebrate, to appropriate the title from a W.B. Yeats’ poem about running the Abbey: “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” surely a successful local production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya would be a contender. Anyone who has seen a mediocre production of Uncle Vanya knows how dreary the play can be to sit through. Americans are not known for getting Chekov right, but we try and try again because, when it is done right, it is an expansive play about the human condition and rich to ponder.
A classic American version still available to the public is the film Vanya on 42nd Street. The story behind this film is that in the early 1990s, André Gregory, theater director, assembled theater artists interested in understanding Chekov’s works to meet up at an abandoned theater to perform private readings. They met for three years and Vanya on 42nd Street is the filmed result of their collaboration. The film brings together major film and theater talent such as Louis Malle as director, Wallace Shawn in the role of Vanya, and Julianne Moore in the role of Helena; André Gregory wrote the screenplay.
The movie begins with scenes of the cast and crew walking down the streets of Times Square, New York, on their way to the theater. Times Square was, at the time (1994) not the flashy commercial cultural center it is today. A tough and gritty neighborhood, Times Square was known for its crime rate, sidewalk drug dealing, porn shops, dive bars as well as its world class theaters. Filmed in the then abandoned New Amsterdam Theater, the film’s actors and crew chit chat before the reading includes an aside on how rats are current residents of the previously majestic and now decrepit theater.
The theater doors shut and we are transported into the world of Uncle Vanya. The larger concern of the drama is the rich appropriating the labor of the poor within a family structure. The Professor treats his brother-in-law (from his first wife), Vanya, like a second class citizen; Vanya complains he does not get the compensation he deserves for his efforts, but complies. In Uncle Vanya an undercurrent of rage and despair that economic inequality fosters is explored through who the characters fall in love with, as they discuss, and debate, what matters to them in a social content, and why.
Perhaps the humble approach to present Uncle Vanya as a staged reading, no fourth wall, and a hand-picked small audience, the actors wearing street clothes, is why Vanya on 42nd Street is enthralling to watch. In a New York Times article, Andre Gregory said of Vanya on 42nd Street as it became available on restored DVD and Blueray by Criterion in 2012, “a groundbreaking element of it being filmed was to show that Chekhov cannot be performed for a large audience because then it’s being performed.”
A Gregory led adaption of Uncle Vanya deserves its renown, and yet a recent version of Uncle Vanya, presented by the Eagle Project at New Perspectives Theatre last spring, defies the logic of his success that Chekov cannot be performed; the Eagle Project’s cast performed it well. It is a reason to celebrate when two contradictory approaches to a challenging, great play result in both instances in thriving theater. Such occurrences provide proof, of a sort, that parallel universes coexist and don’t have to destroy one another to do so.
Uncle Abram’s unique achievement is its vision to give American audiences a glimpse into how the play might have been received by Russian theatregoers who attended Uncle Vanya when it opened in 1899. This feat of imagination is achieved, in part, due to director Ryan Victor “Little Eagle” Pierce’s decision to move the setting to a former plantation in the South during the Reconstruction Era. Chekov was born in 1860. The next year Tsar Alexander II issued the Emancipation of Reform of 1861 to free Russia’s 22.5 million peasants from serfdom. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States in 1863.
Emancipation would bring with it the need for mammoth private and public cooperation to forge a new economy to bring job and housing to former slaves and serfs. The Reconstruction Era began at the end of the Civil War and was, for America, a time of great promise; however, over time it was deemed a failed project due to too many influential people conniving to keep the power structure where it was. Similarly in Russia, back in the 1860s, serfs were granted freedom, but no land.
In Uncle Vanya an undercurrent of rage and despair that economic unfairness fosters is explored through who the characters fall in love with, as they discuss, and debate, what matters to them in a social content, and why. The Professor inherited his role as caretaker of Vanya’s family estate due to his marriage to Vanya’s sister, now deceased.
Vanya regarding the Professor:
Oh, how I’ve been deceived! For years I’ve worshipped that miserable gout-ridden professor — worked like an ox for him. Sonya and I have squeezed this estate dry for his sake. We’ve bartered our butter and curds and peas like misers, and have never kept a morsel for ourselves, so that we could scrape enough money together to send to him. I was proud of him and of his learning; I received all his words and writings as inspired, and, dear God, now? Now he’s retired, and what’s the total of his life? Not a page of his work will survive! He’s absolutely unknown, and his fame has burst like a soap-bubble. I’ve been deceived; I see that now, foolishly deceived.
(Uncle Vanya, Act III, Chekov, Fell translation)
Vanya is Abram in Uncle Abram. As part of its reconstruction, Uncle Abram character names and cultural references are changed from Russian to American; otherwise, the actors recite the dialogue of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya based on Marian Fell’s translation published in 1912.
Abram is played by Tony White, a black actor. White’s Abram has a modern appeal of a street-smart New Yorker. He speaks eloquently as Chekov’s dialogue requires, but his temperament is one of being constantly on guard and a bit of a hot head, suggesting a time bomb ticking. Jackie Torres as Esther (Vanya’s Sonya) and Kelly Anne as Hannah (Vanya’s Yelena) do wonders with their scenes together to communicate an alliance to each other, yet within a broken family structure, both of them financially dependent on the Professor’s affection with only so much money to go around. A scene where Esther’s laughter became uncontrollable, and could have easily switched over to crying, instead Hannah joins in, is particularly poignant.
Esther is portrayed as equally charismatic as Hannah; this departure from expectation that she be plain while Hannah is glamorous, accentuates for the audience that Hannah’s marriage to the financially domineering Professor is an unflattering source of her attraction—unflattering to her, to the men who chase her in delusion, and an indication of the collective despair to exist in a corrupt power structure that citizens feel helpless to change.
Native American drumming in Act II, performed by Abby Ybarra as Waffles, and Kahill Garcia as Dr. Joseph “Red Elk” Hamilton (Vanya’s Astroff), evokes for current day audiences, as a Donald Trump presidency gives rise to a white supremacist movement, the grim reality that America’s legacy of brutality still haunts our country as a force to be reckoned with. The doctor oversees a forest preserve and his lament over the destruction of local forests is uncanny to listen to now. To have a Native American actor play the doctor, with his environmental activism even back then, brings home the urgency of our national dilemma, that while the U.S. is at a standstill to convert to green energy, again due to a Trump administration agenda, nonwhite populations most often live in the areas with the most toxic environments.
Astroff to Yelena:
We are confronted by the degradation of our country, brought on by the fierce struggle for existence of the human race. It is the consequence of the ignorance and unconsciousness of starving, shivering, sick humanity that, to save its children, instinctively snatches at everything that can warm it and still its hunger. So it destroys everything it can lay its hands on, without a thought for the morrow. And almost everything has gone, and nothing has been created to take its place. [Coldly] But I see by your face that you’re bored.
(Uncle Vanya, Act III, Chekov, Fell translation)
Yelena is holding in her passion for Astroff in this scene from Uncle Vanya, so she is not as bored as all that. Their mutual confessions of love, or lust, lead the action well to the blow out between Vanya and the Professor. Uncle Abram’s freewheeling interpretation of Vanya, as Abram, missing his opportunity for revenge against the Professor (the shot) is reason enough to want to see Eagle Project’s reconstruction of Uncle Vanya moved to a larger, Off-Broadway stage.
A well-done production of Uncle Vanya remains suspenseful whether it’s presented as Uncle Vanya, Vanya on 42nd Street or Uncle Abram. The Professor and Yelena’s visit provokes conflict with Vanya’s family to a boiling point. Dissent is in the air, but reform doesn’t materialize. To try and determine what Chekov was thinking about as he wrote Uncle Vanya, present-day assumptions are most likely wildly misguided, and yet when a foreign, century-old play takes on enough heart for an audience member to say, “ah, this must be what the people of Russia felt attending Uncle Vanya back in Chekov’s day,” there is magic happening in the theater, and what it is conjuring up is good old-fashioned human empathy.
Theater productions come and go, but thrilling productions are remembered for years and even decades among theater enthusiasts. The enrichment of theater production history is largely dependent on theater articles being published in literary magazines (with archives) or theater essays being anthologized in books that remain in print. Productions might be mentioned in biographies of famous playwrights or theater artists. On occasion, the making of a live production is featured in a documentary.
It would be fascinating (and difficult) if an investment were made into creating a genre of film devoted to transporting live theater productions into feature film. Uncle Abram, for instance, if filmed, would make a wonderful cinematic comparison to Vanya on 42nd Street. Part of the fun would be that while the acting would have to be good, the actors would not have to be famous; the lure for the film audience would be on the experimental presentation of a classic play. Such a project would encourage diversity in regards to the team assembled and the format of the film and, over time, could lead to diversity as a natural expectation when looking to be inspired by a film.