Uncle Vanya

Deep Dish Theater
Through March 14

It takes a lot of nerve to stage or act in one of the theater’s best-known plays, like Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Everybody’s already going to have an opinion about it, even before the first act opens. They’ll be ready to quibble about the translation, the casting, the characterizations, the interpretation, the pacing, the costumes, the set and anything else about which the director has made a decision.

So here goes.

Deep Dish Theater continues its eighthand very mixedseason with Uncle Vanya, directed by the company’s artistic director, Paul Frellick. He has produced a smooth, competent play, with nice sets and good costuming, and without a single surprising moment. Considering how miserable and confused and angry these characters are, it is quite remarkable that they elicit so little feeling from the audience. The actors are all plausible in their parts but seem tamped down and distant, almost as if they were bemusedly watching someone else portray themselves.

Although it is set in late imperial Russia and its details are particular to that time and place, many passages of Uncle Vanya sound as if they could have been written yesterday, so this languid distancing from the play’s fierce internal passions is particularly strange. We’ve got love flaunted, love hidden, love denied, love illicitalways up-to-date situations. We’ve got the class divisions of pre-revolutionary Russia, between the intelligentsia and the ignorant massesso like those in the U.S. today between the “elites” and the Plumber Joes. We’ve got Dr. Astrov (David Berberian), his heart untouched by people, but with a passionate love of trees and the ability to think longsome of his speeches about deforestation sound an awful lot like those of south Durham’s eloquent Melissa Rooney pleading to county commissioners on behalf of the plundered lands around Jordan Lake. As catalyst for the action, there’s the Professor (Tom Marriott) and his beautiful young wife Yelena (Anne-Caitlin Donohue), leeching off the Professor’s daughter Sonya and his late wife’s family, Maman (Adair Weiss) and Uncle Vanya (Mark Filiaci). They were happy to read his fulminations and to work themselves to the bone to support himuntil he showed up to ruin their lives in person and they realize that not only is he an intellectual cipher, he intends to take everything from them. Needless to say, Chekhov’s gun goes off in the third act.

The actor who best breaks through the smooth surface is Page Purgar as Sonya, although even she doesn’t show the depth and complication these characters require. Filiaci warms up as Vanya in the second half, but he fails to engage our sympathy in the first, so it is of little matter. Berberian’s usual warmth and dynamism are wasted here, as are Marriott’s enormous skill and subtlety. Uncle Vanya is a play so rich in wit, nuance, political observation, biting humor and a sort of kindness to human foibles, that to render it a harmless entertainment is in a way quite an achievementbut not one that should be emulated.