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Rural Rhythms

Theater Review: Vanya/Vermont


Published March 30, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

An ambitious variation on Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's literary masterpiece Uncle Vanya is currently in residence at FlynnSpace, adapted by Kathryn Blume and produced by Vermont Stage Company. Transplanted from Russia to rural Vermont, Vanya/Vermont is a glimpse of financially challenging country living and the effect of celebrity blowing into town. In its original translation, Vanya has the potential to be a poignant slice-of-life tragicomedy that leaves you begging for more. This ultra-modernized adaptation, however, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It does not do full justice to either Chekhov or Vermont.

In the 1890s, when formulaic vaudevilles and farces dominated the Russian stage, Chekhov created plays that focused on moral dilemmas and had no heroes or villains. He replaced happy endings with ambiguity, and conflict with personal quests. With such now-classic works as Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov explored themes of love, work and time, blurring the lines between sorrow and humor. Chekhov was a doctor and, perhaps as a result of this profession, conveyed an incredible understanding of human nature. Vanya/Vermont neglects that important key to the heart of the original.

In this production, John "Vanya" Peterson (VSC Artistic Director Mark Nash) runs his family's organic farm Weathertop in the Northeast Kingdom. He and his niece Sonya (co-AD Kathryn Blume) have toiled most of their lives to help support Vanya's brother-in-law, famous novelist Richard Alexander (Wes Sanders). With his much younger wife Ellen (Kate Hampton), Richard has recently relocated from Manhattan to live at the farm. Vanya falls in love with her, but he cannot talk to his best friend Michael Astor (Larry Gleason), the family doctor and land-trust activist, because he's fallen for Ellen, as well. Meanwhile, Sonya pines for Michael.

Vanya/Vermont certainly has obvious parallels with Chekhov's original. It depicts small-town life in a rural community that is shaken when bigwigs come to town -- whether a famous novelist or Wal-Mart. The play also tackles current local issues such as deforestation and sprawl. By updating and relocating Vanya, Vermont Stage cleverly brings Chekhov to a modern audience; Kathryn Blume walks a fine line between creating a new play based on Uncle Vanya and calling it an "adaptation."

She generally keeps Chekhov's structure and ideas intact, but his distinct voice is missing. While it's true that, early in his career, Chekhov was branded a tragedian, his plays do contain humor. Blume has done an admirable job infusing contemporary references into the piece, and her jokes went over well with the majority of the audience last week. But they sometimes feel force-fed, detracting from the tragedy that is central to this and Chekhov's work.

In Blume's version, Chris Bohjalian replaces Dostoyevsky, Vanya's love for Ellen is like "Kirk's for an android on 'Star Trek,'" and questioning individuals are likened to Oprah. The adaptation has a near-condescending tone that seems to poke fun at Vermonters rather than embrace them. For example, when Ellen dismisses Vanya with the quip, "Go harvest something," it's amusingly appropriate to the translation, but it also suffers from a pretension that infects the entire production.

This is unfortunate for the actors, as well as for director Jason Jacobs, who rarely escape the localized humor and reach the real meat -- or in this case, wheat germ -- of the play. As a result, no one appears 100-percent comfortable onstage.

As the title character, Nash works hard to capture the humor and tragedy of a man who "gave up" 20-plus years of his life to support his family and run the farm. He is close to cracking Vanya's shell, and glimpses of this border on mesmerizing, but Blume's text hinders him. Case in point: When Vanya walks in on Astor and Ellen kissing, it's a turning point in Vanya's journey; the floor seems to fall out from under him. Blume turns it comical, as Vanya comments, "I've seen it before in bad plays, but never believed it..." As much as we want to, we can never escape Vanya's melodrama to truly feel for him.

Blume does double duty as playwright and actor, and her Sonya is the audience's lifeline through the play. A combination of cheerleader and farm girl, she is too cutesy for the audience to care if she gets what she desires. Initially, this can be attributed to her girlish crush on Michael, but her exuberance seeps into the majority of her scenes. She delivers best when she strips this away. Sonya's final monologue is the only point at which the audience sees her honestly, without bells and whistles. One wishes her entire performance could be comparably subdued.

It takes a while to warm up to Larry Gleason's Michael, but he finally achieves a lovable charm, especially in his late-night drunken singing. We come to understand why he is the object of two women's affections. As the pompous, self-centered Richard, Wes Sanders piles such theatricality onto his bosso-profundo voice that we never really believe his threat to sell Weathertop. Bob Nuner as the real-Vermonter farmhand "Waffles" is an amusing, Rusty DeWees-like addition to the ensemble, and Carolyn Gordon is solid as Vanya's aging earth-mother Marina.

The show's strongest performance comes from Kate Hampton as Ellen, who achieves just the right balance of venom and sex appeal. Her whiskey-drinking scene with Blume is an excellent portrayal of late-night drunkenness. And Hampton's moment alone onstage, singing "Fly Me to the Moon," if a drastic departure from Chekhov's intentions, is stunning.

Director Jacobs, who is also credited for the original concept, has staged this "in-the-round" production well -- the FlynnSpace allows for a nice immediacy. But he focuses too much on the humor and neglects the play's more sensitive moments. In not one but three instances, he has characters direct their narratives to a framed photo of Vanya's dead sister Sarah. It's a hokey convention that brushstrokes the play's more heartbreaking moments. However, Jacobs' transitions between "acts" are slick and fully utilize Jenny Fulton's rustic set design, which ingeniously incorporates the play's sub-theme of deforestation. The sound design, for which no one is credited, can be abrasive, and Bob Wolff's lighting design is, as always, effective.

As Richard leaves the farm to return to Manhattan, the elderly Marina proposes "Scenes From Country Life" as the title for his new book. It is Blume's cleverly placed homage to Chekhov's original subtitle. For those who love Chekhov, there are too few of these moments to make Vanya/Vermont a thoroughly satisfying experience. And those who love Vermont might also find themselves hungry for more than a slice of life.