Old-fashioned Russians steep in the blues

Uncle Vanya
Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Brian Richmond
Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre
@ the McPherson Playhouse
Until June 16th

Reviewed by Leah Callen

In Uncle Vanya, life is a painful operation that begs for morphine, and the woods are heavy with sadness. When a famous professor and his young wife arrive on their Russian country estate, the locals lose their minds. Melancholy catches on among the forest inmates.  These human shadows squint psychologically through darkness, pining for light to brighten their dull lives. Drunk on vodka and unrequited desire, these Russians moan and steep in their misery. When tempted by romantic risks and revenge, some decide that living on a ledge is better than dying of boredom.

As the matriarch Marina pours the tea, characters boil over and grow cold. The doctor Astrov feels as numb to joy as a patient who has been chloroformed. Jacob Richmond plays his drunken scenes with an entertaining abandon and I feared for his safety as he balanced precariously on furniture. As self-righteous Sonya, Casey Austin portrays a pragmatic idealist, invisible to all the bachelors because of her plain face.  She often brings out the best in people with her simple purity, but develops a weary patina over time that is fatalistic. She really just wants to be loved.

Vanya despairs that he has wasted his life and wants to do something about it. Duncan Ollerenshaw’s performance ranges from subtle to over-the-top. Drowning in a deep midlife crisis, Vanya is attracted to the red flash of Yelena’s hair as she graces an outdoor swing like a rare songbird. Amanda Lisman was beautiful as the free spirit desperate for passion to heat her lukewarm life. She suffers from a loveless marriage, unable to spread her wings in her marital cage.  Her controlling husband Serebyakov, played by Chris Britton, was both starchy and wilting as he rules the roost with his whims. When Yelena broke down, I cried too. I wanted her to be free. This actress emoted even when she had no words.

The birch-coloured costumes blended elegantly with the set; characters were human trees cutting one another down. Their clothing had a nineteenth-century uniformity, but over time it struck me as olden-day beige–a symbol of hopeless ennui. Only Yelena wears some sky blue when she tries to soar, or maybe it’s the sea since the men see her as a siren. The diffuse lighting, Russian chant, and hints of guitar brew up potent atmosphere. Uncle Vanya seems more driven by mood than plot. This play creeps inside you like nightfall as the birches grow from gentle to suffocating.

The stage bloomed with visual metaphors: the winding of yarn as characters discuss fate, the unloved Sonya embracing roses that were given to another woman, Vanya pushing the swing of the woman he’s trying to seduce.  A touching moment arose when two women share a cup of wine, a peacemaking communion. However, I struggled with how abruptly chaos explodes on stage later. The sudden intensity of the most dramatic scene seemed slightly comical. Though I enjoyed the emotional fireworks, it was a touch melodramatic.  Still, the plot is perfectly frustrating in this forest of futility.

Chekhov’s moody masterpiece is deeply poetic, but it also made me laugh. It was both darker and lighter than I imagined–a theatrical chiaroscuro. Perhaps only a Russian writes that our best hope is to dream in our coffins. One can’t help feeling that these people bury themselves alive. They think goodness equals boredom and only destruction leads to joy, that life is a dull pain to be endured until it’s over. I wanted to shake them out of their emotional comas or prescribe them anti-depressants–to beg them not to give up on happiness. Perhaps that was Chekhov’s point. And I really wanted a shot of vodka when the play was over.

Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter in Victoria.