Review: `Uncle Vanya’

Continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda

Annie Purcell is Sonya and Dan Hiatt is Vanya in Cal Shakes’ beautiful, moving production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Photos by Kevin Berne


Beauty, boredom, brilliance imbue Cal Shakes’ Vanya

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Passion runs deep in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but until late in the game, that passion barely stirs the surface.

One of the fascinating things about Chekhov, and one of the great elements of the California Shakespeare Theater Vanya now running in Orinda, is that hardly anything or anyone can be judged in a simple way.

Vanya is essentially about two deeply lonely souls whose lives either have escaped them or are about to. Sonya is a plain young woman with a powerful mind and an even more powerful heart. She and her Uncle Vanya are stuck running a wheat farm so that they can support Sonya’s father, Alexander, an esteemed academic who’s not nearly the great man they think he is.

Seemingly resigned to their lives of toil and isolation, Sonya and Vanya harbor passions and hopes and plans of their own. For Sonya, it’s all about her love of the dashing, slightly gone-to-seed Dr. Astrov, a country doctor with forward-thinking ideas about the preservation of the earth. But the doctor’s cynicism (and alcoholism) prevent him from connecting with anyone decent. He only responds to beauty, which means he only responds to Yelena, the gorgeous young second wife of academic Alexander.

The doctor is bored and interesting. Yelena is bored and beautiful. It’s a lazy but potent combination, which is too bad for Vanya, who also pines for Yelena but for whom he’ll never be anything but a good friend.

If this sounds a little melodramatic, it isn’t, especially in Emily Mann’s crisp, clear adaptation directed by Timothy Near, the outgoing artistic director of San Jose Repertory Theatre making her Cal Shakes debut.

Mann and Near emphasize the comedy – there really are a lot of laughs, all of which come from character more than situation – only because the more we laugh, the more our hearts break, especially for Sonya, a young woman who deserves so much better than she gets.

Near adds some fussy directorial flourishes at the top of each act, but mostly she adheres to the complex simplicity of Chekhov’s characters as they coast through their days full of regret, misery, exhaustion, suffocation, idleness, old age, restlessness and failure, all the while chatting and getting on with the business of their days. There are some great musical moments – both with recorded folk music and muted trumpet in Jeff Mockus’ expert sound design and live guitar playing by Howard Swain as Waffles, a friend of the family’s.

Near’s production is filled with warmth, and the Cal Shakes stage is stunningly beautiful with Erik Flatmo’s rustic, raw wood set blends seamlessly with the golden Orinda hills behind the stage. York Kennedy’s lights make all that wood glow in rich golden tones, and Raquel Barreto’s costumes blend perfectly except for Yelena’s gowns, which are meant to stand out as sophisticated beauty amid rural earthiness.
Dan Hiatt gives Vanya some much needed levity, but when the character snaps, when he’s finally had enough, Hiatt connects with profound anger and desperation. Early on, Vanya gets a laugh with the line: “It’s a senseless, dirty business this living.” But by play’s end, nearly 2 ½ hours later, we believe him.

Vanya’s friendship with the doctor is strongly felt because Andy Murray is perfectly cast as Astrov, a man with some sexual fire still in him but who has given over to the pressures of his job and the futility of being an environmentalist in an industrial world.

Sarah Grace Wilson as Yelena has the requisite beauty, but she reveals much more under the surface and makes her character, who is stuck in a horrible marriage with an egomaniacal blowhard (James Carpenter as Alexander), one of the bright lights of the play.

But no light is brighter than Annie Purcell as Sonya. Purcell is so grounded, so real, it’s almost impossible to watch anyone else when she’s on stage. She listens with intensity, and even the most fleeting expression on her face can break your heart. And Sonya is a heartbreaking character to be sure – just watch her in the doctor’s thrall as he, oblivious to her adoration, degrades, demeans and destroys her without ever knowing it.

It’s a tribute to Chekhov first, and to everyone in this production next, that such a depressing play isn’t depressing. “It’s the world that’s insane for letting us live in it,” Vanya says. And he’s right. But like Vanya and Sonya, we go on and find a way to live in a sad, insane world, even if we never quite know why or how we do.

Cal Shakes’ Uncle Vanya continues through Aug. 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $32-$62. There’s a free shuttle between the theater and the Orinda BART station. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

One thought on “Review: `Uncle Vanya’

  1. Good review of “Uncle Vanya”. This has never been my most favorite Chekov’s play. I have seen at least nine productions over the 70 years of going to theatre on this earth. All have been heavy handed Russian melodramas. Most of the Vanya’s I have seen have been British including Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay, Nichol Williamson. Some go back to Stratford which I can’t even remember the actor’s names. This marked the second time I had seen an American actor take on the role (Richard Elmore played the role at the OSF several years back). I have to say I enjoyed the production since it contained a lot of humor. I really like Dan Haitt at Vanya. He was like a puppy dog jumping and running all over the stage but I liked it. I was very impress with the New York actress Sarah Grace Wilson and Andy Murray as Dr. Astov. I even liked the hang dog expression on Howard Swain’s face as the pathetic Ilya Telegin.

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