Laughing Through Tears 

Richmond Shakespeare's “Uncle Vanya” leavens a story of quiet desperation with compelling comedy.

click to enlarge Lindsey Zelli as Yelena and Brian Austin in the title role of "Uncle Vanya," the classic work by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, which is being produced by Richmond Shakespeare  through Feb. 12 at Gottwald Playhouse.

Dave Parrish Photography

Lindsey Zelli as Yelena and Brian Austin in the title role of "Uncle Vanya," the classic work by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, which is being produced by Richmond Shakespeare through Feb. 12 at Gottwald Playhouse.

In her program notes, Dr. Jan Powell, the director of Richmond Shakespeare's “Uncle Vanya,” includes a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Her production goes on to prove that unhappiness can also be beautiful, compelling, and exquisitely bittersweet. Make no mistake: The sadness of its characters is so oppressive that “Vanya” skirts the edges of parody. But the production that opened this past weekend delivers such finely wrought performances in a splendidly staged setting that it acts like a post-pandemic salve to the soul.

One of Anton Chekhov’s masterworks, “Uncle Vanya” is almost infamous for its plotlessness. In this 2020 adaptation by Conor McPherson, the playwright stripped away the excesses and added modern language, while maintaining the original’s core sensibilities.

As such, most of the play’s “action” involves characters moping around a large estate in the Russian countryside of the 1890s, having conversations that inevitably devolve into arguments. The genius of such an undifferentiated canvas is that major moments – a song, a gunshot, a passionate embrace – stand out in stark relief.

The title character, played with comic gusto by Brian Austin, realizes that he’s squandered his life maintaining an estate on behalf of his brother-in-law, Alexandr (Alan Sader), a pompous and morose professor. While the professor has been building his academic fame in the city, Vanya has toiled in the countryside, raising Alexandr’s daughter, Sonya (Calie Bain), and generating income that supports the professor’s lifestyle.

As the play opens, it’s been many years since the professor's wife died. He brings his much younger wife, Yelena (Lindsey Zelli), to the estate, where she catches the eye of dashing Dr. Astrov (Matt Hackman), the subject of Sonya’s unrequited love. When the professor announces plans to sell the property, long-standing resentments boil over.

click to enlarge Brian Austin as Uncle Vanya. - DAVE PARRISH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dave Parrish Photography
  • Brian Austin as Uncle Vanya.

Any of these characters could be one-dimensional throwaways but each actor leverages McPherson’s rich language and Powell’s expert direction to create a resonant portrayal that transcends single-adjective descriptions. Vanya is a buffoonish jester, but by the play’s end, Austin reveals the urgent romanticism and sarcastic intelligence that innervates him. Hackman’s Astrov seems defeated by the crushing demands of his medical practice, but then shows almost manic animation in his devotion to ecological conservation.

For a play that originates in the 19th century, the women characters are given surprising depth. Zelli’s Yelena is no pretty cypher, but a bundle of intriguing contradictions, including an earnest desire to be a good stepmother. With her key relationship to each other character, Sonya ends up being the lynchpin that ties the play together. Bain’s portrayal is a subtle triumph, projecting an almost impossible hope in the midst of heartbreak.

Powell’s technical team provides a sumptuous tapestry for “Vanya” to unfold on, with the beautiful wood furniture of Reed West’s set design effectively embodying images of old-world wealth. Richmond’s master of period costumes, Anna Bialkowski, does her usual magic, from Yelena’s prim and stunning dresses to Vanya’s stained, ill-fitting trousers. Gretta Daughtrey’s deft lighting design even gets a standout moment, as a coming storm haunts the end of the first act.

Powell utilizes powerhouse talent in smaller supporting roles, with Kelly Kennedy making the most of her stage time as Nana, the family caretaker, generating laughs with the smallest gestures. Sader is appropriately imperious as the professor, but also gets to show an emotional fragility in a scene that reveals his failing health. As the “always around” neighbor, Ilia, nicknamed Waffles, Bill Blair offers several comic grace notes, with only Debra Clinton, as Vanya’s mother, given few moments to shine.

Another classic that debuted around the same time as “Vanya,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” centered the seemingly cavernous divide between city and country living. But while “Earnest” revels in high-minded farce, “Vanya” mashes up family dynamics and the snowballing of life’s disappointments into an insightful tragicomic tableau. With Powell’s confident guiding hand, it is as moving today as I expect it was in 1898.

“Uncle Vanya” is playing at the Gottwald Playhouse in the Dominion Energy Center, 600 East Grace St., through Feb. 12. Tickets available at https://richmondshakespeare.org/.



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