Saturday, October 18, 2014

Uncle Vanya Timid But Effective

By Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Elisabeth Ross

Julia Sears as Sonya; Brad Quinn as Mikhail
Iowa City - Dreamwell Theatre kicked off their '14-'15 season, "The Grand Delusion," last night with a thoughtful performance of the David Mamet adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (tr. Vlada Chernomirdik). The show is an old classic that stands the test of time. The tensions and emotions inherent in any family, or group of people who has long lived together as family, bubble to the surface in agonizingly familiar ways. None of the character tropes in Vanya is new to the audience; each is an old friend or enemy or aspect of self. The language is fresh and engaging, tackling large philosophies and petty squabbles with equal deftness. This is a show that any theater lover should see at least once, and Dreamwell's production is a wonderful opportunity to do so locally.

The action of the play centers around a couple of houseguests who have overstayed their welcome on a family estate. Existential angst walks hand-in-hand with drunken humor as illicit romances are kindled and refused, and friendships are pushed to breaking. Director Rachael Lindhart has assembled a solid cast that generally plays well with each other. Lindhart mentions in her Director's Note that she was drawn to this play because of the characters, and it is clear that some wonderful character work has been done on this show. Brad Quinn as Mikhail Astrov, the curious country doctor, and Julia Sears as Sonya, niece to the titular uncle, are shining examples of this. They constantly explore and reveal their characters' many idiosyncrasies. They are also attentive listeners and lovely scene partners. Matthew Brewbaker, as Vanya himself, is wonderful at exposing the character's tragic core, especially in his solo work.

One performance that was distracting for me was Lindsay Vincent's modern take on Yelena. As the much younger wife of an elderly professor (Chuck Dufano), and one of the aforementioned houseguests, it is not unusual for her to seem out of place. However, for a production that did an admirable job of keeping things at least timeless, if not precisely period, her modernity was off-putting. It was partly Vincent's tone and reactions (especially the repeated eye rolling) but also the character's look. Her hair, especially, was a problem, as whenever it was pulled back, it drew attention because of the piece she was constantly brushing out of her face. Her red nailpolish, dark red lips, and heavy eyeliner seemed quite present-day as well. Most actively distracting, though, was the way the stage lights kept glinting off of what appeared to be a piercing below her lower lip. The character of Yelena is supposed to be a polarizing figure, drawing people to her while at the same time bearing the brunt of the criticism thrown about, for her indolence. Vincent carried that aspect off quite well, which unfortunately only served to make these seemingly minor details impossible to ignore.

An area where the production overall struggled was that there was very little in the way of chemistry between any of the leads. When Yelena accuses Vanya of staring at her lovingly, he seems to be looking right past her. Yelena attempts to hide her affection for the doctor from Sonya but succeeds in hiding it from the audience as well. Alexandr, the professor, shows no affection or attraction at all towards his wife. In addition, the balance of the show was sometimes off. Chekhov has a very delicate interplay of tension and humor, but that doesn't always seem to land correctly in this performance, with facial expressions and attitudes adding comedy to moments that could have benefited from purer tension.

Another obstacle the show faces is the difficulty of walking the line between characters who choose to disengage and actors who aren't listening well. Much of the rhetoric of the play centers around the need to have one's voice and message heard, and the challenges faced when everyone wants to be heard but no one wants to listen. When so much of the craft of acting is dedicated to listening, it can be exceedingly difficult to play a character who doesn't. For the most part, in this show, Lindhart guides her actors along this tightrope quite well... but there are moments when that falters, and the subtlety is lost.

Kathy Maxey, Deone Pedersen, Matthew Brewbaker,
Chuck Dufano, Brian Tanner, Lindsay Vincent, Julia Sears

What holds the show together, despite these challenges, is the solidity of the ensemble as a whole. Lack of romance aside, this is obviously a cast that bonded well. The interactions are mostly easy and comfortable, and even the smaller parts contribute with skill and grace. Special mention should be made of Kathy Maxey in the role of Marina, a centering presence in many scenes, even when mostly silent. The actors' familiarity with the script and with each other is fluid and effective. On the whole, this performance was quite enjoyable, and I recommend taking the time to see it, especially if you have never seen the play performed before.

Uncle Vanya runs tonight, October 18, as well as next weekend, October 24 & 25, at 7:30 each night at the Unitarian Universalist Society. Tickets and additional information available here.

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