At Intiman in Seattle, artistic director Bartlett Sher stages Uncle Vanya

The classic Anton Chekhov play deals with themes of love and work.
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<i>Uncle Vanya</i> at Intiman Theatre in Seattle, with Kristin Flanders as Sonya and Samantha Mathis as Elena. (Chris Bennion)

The classic Anton Chekhov play deals with themes of love and work.

Intiman Theatre's new production of Uncle Vanya has all the familiar ennui of Chekhov but is done in an almost-contemporary way, in both language and staging. My Russian is a little rusty – it ends with nyet – but I'd be surprised if "deforestation" and "cowflop" were idioms in 19th century Moscow. The direction by Barlett Sher and the adaptation by Craig Lucas are trying to sustain some dark humor and energy through this tale of unhappiness during a summer at the Serebriakov estate. Vanya (played by Mark Nelson) is 47 and feels his life has been wasted. If only he had proposed years earlier to the beautiful Elena (Samantha Mathis), who instead is married to the aging scholar, Prof. Serebriakov (Allen Fitzpatrick). Vanya loves nobody and is loved by nobody – or is that how physican Astrov (Tim Hopper) describes himself? The action is fueled by tea, vodka, misdirected passion, and the professor's announcement that he wants to sell the place. Ennui is everywhere. The characters are self-aware and constantly self-defeating. Having myself passed the half-century mark, I was more than a little attentive to Vanya's reflections on life, choices, and missed opportunities, and his resistance to counter arguments from Sonya (Kristin Flanders), his stepsister, who's desperate for Astrov. This production deserves consideration not just for Chekhov's characters but also as an insight into Sher as artistic director at Intiman in Seattle, now celebrating its 35th season. According to the program notes, "There are people who say Uncle Vanya is about despair and frustration, and others say it is about hope and courage. In fact it's about all these things," says Sher. "This might be my favorite play on earth, because its basic themes are the things I care most about: love and work." An interesting point, because there's so much talk about love and work, but little on stage. Sonya scrubs the floor and tells Elena that keeping busy is a path to happiness, or something close enough. Astrov stops seeing patients for a month so he can see more of Elena. Peasants come and go, always at work, but anonymous. Sher gives us a staging that is brisk and punctuated with wonderful moments, including a few that set up problems later. In the first act, Sher has Astrov put his arms between Vanya's, waving them around in a gentle mockery of his friend. A great comic bit, an early score with the audience, but it and some other choices by Sher and actor Nelson caused me to lose my connection with Vanya. By the second act, when Vanya explodes at Prof. Serebriakov, I'm no longer with him. A connection is lost. Or maybe that's the point, a missed opportunity. It's a puzzler left by this fine production. Through July 18.


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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.