“Uncle Vanya” at The Guthrie

Andrew Weems and Emily Gunyou-Halaas (photo by Joan Marcus)

Andrew Weems and Emily Gunyou-Halaas (photo by Joan Marcus

One of the strangest things to happen in the last season of “Breaking Bad”, AMC’s meth-fueled drama, is the role-switch (or apparent role-switch) of the two main characters.  Walter White, desperate and stricken with cancer, goes from high-school chemistry teacher to ruthless meth-cooker right under the nose of his DEA brother-in-law, Hank.  To judge from some of the online forums and comments on the last season, Walt’s transformation from hero to villain is now complete, and so we, the audience, should no longer sympathize or “identify” with him.  Suddenly, Hank, that hapless, puffed-up buffoon of a DEA Agent, has become our protagonist simply by virtue of not being a murderous drug-dealer.  It’s time for Walt to be punished, these online moralists opine, and we in the audience, hungry for his come-uppance, are now rooting for Hank.

But do our sympathies really follow such a clear-cut path?

Thinking about the beautifully acted “Uncle Vanya”, currently playing on The Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust, put me in mind of “Breaking Bad” and its challenges to the traditional dramatic roles.  No, BB is far from “Chekhovian”—that much-abused term—and “Vanya” is no meth-soaked noir—but they have in common a blatant disregard for traditional notions of hero and villainy.

The title character of Uncle Vanya (a fearless Andrew Weems), is bitter, petty, and (for the time period), old.  He’s washed up and very vocal about it.  Jealous of his Professor brother-in-law (the wonderfully pompous Robert Dorfman), mean to his adoring niece Sonya, (Emily Gunyou-Halaas, also completely unafraid), and out-maneuvered by the lusty Doctor (a vigorous John Catron), Vanya is at a dead-end in his life, and the play doesn’t change that.  He doesn’t “learn”, he doesn’t “grow”, he barely even “accepts”.  There’s no “closure” to his bitter rivalry with his brother-in-law—they simply return to their old pattern, Vanya slaving away at his dead sister’s estate to support the Professor’s mediocre intellectual career.

The Professor isn’t even much of a villain—just a little harsh and clueless.  At different points in the play, he and Vanya express the same dissatisfaction in almost the same way:  my life is nearly over and I feel as though I haven’t lived it.  Chekhov doesn’t point out the similarity of their complaint, nor does a third character comment on it—it’s there for us to see:  the so-called “success” and the so-called “failure” living with the same regrets.

The two men battle not only over the estate and the meager funds it generates, but the Professor’s lovely new wife, Elena (Valeri Mudek).  But Elena is distraught at having married a much older man (the Professor has over two decades on her), and disgusted by Vanya’s advances.  She’s much more drawn to the Doctor, who may be a brilliant proto-environmentalist (some of his speeches are remarkably prescient), or a tedious drunk with no moral compass, out to seduce as many wives as he can.

This is the household we’re invited into, and these are the people we are meant to sympathize with.  They are completely undeserving of our sympathy by any obvious metric, but, judging from the audience’s hearty laughter, they win our sympathy nonetheless.

Laughter?  Chehkov?  As many of you reading this probably remember, the playwright famously (and desperately) insisted his plays were meant as comedies.  Joe Dowling’s excellent production and Brian Friel’s terrific adaptation finally do that wish justice.  I say “finally” because I’ve never seen a Chekhov production illicit so much laughter.  This is also why I call Weems’s Vanya and Gunyou-Halass’s Sonya “brave”—their characters are foolish in so many ways—weak, desperate—in Vanya’s case, impossibly bitter—and yet the two actors throw themselves into their roles and don’t look back.  The humor is mitigated by the poignancy of these characters’ lives, and vice-versa.

That Friel understands this is clear in his fleshing out of the character “Waffles” (Jim Litchscheidl, nearly walking away with every scene he’s in).  In this iteration, Waffles is betrayed when his wife runs off with a German soldier.  Waffles not only proclaims his undying love for the woman who betrayed him, he has continued sending the couple money to raise children that are not his, and takes every opportunity to praise German inventiveness and culture.  Is this man a saint or an idiot?  Friel doesn’t tell us, and neither does Chekhov.  Yet it’s clear both playwright and adaptor have a great affection for this poor man.

Chekhov boils all of human existence down to two questions: Where will I live?  and Who will love me?  It’s the ultimate seriousness of these stakes that leads many productions toward such a funereal tone.  Only at the very end does this “Vanya” descend to that more familiar pathos.  It’s a forgivable lapse, considering some of the language, but unfortunately pushes us out of the piece when we should most be drawn in.  When we should best experience the radical nature of Chekhov’s dramaturgy, which posits neither heroes nor villains, but only fools, who learn very little, who grow not at all, and who continue to hope without any real reason to do so.


1 comment for ““Uncle Vanya” at The Guthrie

  1. Grant
    October 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I actually found the abundance of laughter in the audience unsettling, and a product of Dowling’s MISdirection and Friel’s liberal “translation” — I’d rather call it an adaptation, with the amount of cutting and adding he did. It seemed as though Dowling found this play “unrelatable” for a modern Minnesotan audience, and instead of trusting the play itself and letting it breathe on it’s own, he manufactured emotion and prompted a lot of unearned gags in order to win the audience over by making them laugh instead of making them think. I mean, how many times did he have Yelena slam a door literally into Vanya’s face, as if to say, “Get it, idiots? She doesn’t like him! Isn’t that funny?” This production lacked any of the weight and the heartache the play needs to make us care about any of these people.

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