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'Vanya' still knows our hearts

Updated language carries Chekhov's power from rural Russia to a California stage.

June 03, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" is a symphony of regret in which each character picks up the theme, embellishes it and passes it on.

At times, it seems like a pity party composed entirely of violin flourishes. When one character in the new Emily Mann adaptation at the La Jolla Playhouse describes those around him as "completely self-absorbed," you want to yell, "Buddy, have you been listening to yourself for the last few minutes?" But, since marching onstage and slapping some sense into the characters isn't an option, you listen, and pretty soon you hear yourself in Chekhov's tragicomic lamentations.

At least two productions have recently occupied Los Angeles stages, which demonstrates how powerfully the play has been resonating since its publication in 1897. In this sea of "Vanyas," the Mann adaptation, which opens the playhouse's summer season, is something special. In addition to Mann's work -- a contemporary-sounding rendition of the text, which she has delicately directed -- there are beautifully shaded characterizations by Broadway-honed actors Amanda Plummer, Steven Skybell, Michael Siberry and William Biff McGuire.

Set on an estate in rural Russia, "Uncle Vanya" eavesdrops on the extended family of a respected artistic commentator. Symbolically setting the scene, in Michael Yeargan's design, are stands of trees that appear to hem in the characters. The light, as envisioned by Nancy Schertler, always seems to be dying.

The mournful music starts with a visiting doctor's announcement that life is "a senseless, dirty business," and from then on, the theme repeats in such variations as the title character's "I'm so angry. I've wasted so much time."

The 47-year-old Vanya (Skybell) can appear foolish as he tugs with boyish desperation at the shawl of the woman he loves in vain, yet his pain is so sharp, so familiar, that it hits us where we live.

His niece, Sonya (Plummer, a 1982 Tony-winner for "Agnes of God"), is a smart, practical woman with a true, resilient spirit, which we can see from the moment she strides onto the scene in a sensible jacket and skirt (costumes by Myung Hee Cho). But like Vanya, she suffers from an impossible infatuation. When she finally confronts that rejection, she holds herself erect and fights to remain impassive, even as a thousand emotions flash across her face.

The man she loves -- the brilliant doctor, wasting away in a small town -- is often drunk, but in Siberry's hands, he is also good-natured and roguishly irresistible. He, in turn, loves Yelena (Natacha Roi), the estate owner's beautiful, bored wife, whom we'd love to hate but can't, since Roi portrays her with such genuine goodwill.

The aging estate owner (McGuire, recently seen in Los Angeles in "Morning's at Seven") rails sourly at the passage of time while an impoverished neighbor (Jonathan Hogan) tries the opposite tack: perpetual optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

The contemporary language occasionally draws attention to itself, as when one character says "give it a rest." But for the most part, it sounds effortless as it teaches that we must persevere through whatever disappointment life hands us.


'Uncle Vanya'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: June 29

Price: $39-$49

Contact: (858) 550-1010

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Amanda Plummer...Sonya

Steven Skybell...Ivan Voynitsky

William Biff McGuire...Alexander Serebryakov

Natacha Roi...Yelena

Michael Siberry...Mikhail Astrov

Jonathan Hogan...Ilya Telegin

A La Jolla Playhouse presentation in association with McCarter Theatre Center. By Anton Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Emily Mann. Sets Michael Yeargan. Costumes Myung Hee Cho. Lights Nancy Schertler. Production stage manager Cheryl Mintz.

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