Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Uncle Vanya
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

David Darlow, Kristen Bush, Tim Hopper,
Marilyn Dodds Frank, Larry Neumann Jr., Caroline Neff,
and Mary Ann Thebus

Photo by Liz Lauren
I guess it can take a lifetime, or nearly one, to catch up with all the great plays. Even when one limits one's exploration to the modern era, of which Chekhov's Uncle Vanya is one of the earliest examples, there are so many to see. So, after my exposure to this play in its current production at the Goodman Theatre, it was with both embarrassment and delight that I belatedly pronounced it to be one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps this is not so shameful—even the production's director, Robert Falls, says in a program note that he did not fully comprehend the play's themes of aging, disappointment and alienation until recently (he's 62). Chekhov's characters are all aware of the passage of time, filled with regret for missed opportunities, and understand that second chances to gain the things they desire—love, security—are becoming increasingly unlikely.

The playwright Annie Baker, who wrote this "translaptation" based on Margarita Shalina's literal translation from the original Russian text, displays the gift for empathy that has become a hallmark of her writing (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation and others). A cursory glance at an earlier translation of Vanya suggests to me her version hews closely to the original, but simplifies some of the language to make it more accessible. This Vanya remains set in a late 19th century country house somewhere in Russia, with the decaying estate created by set designer Todd Rosenthal (another master of realism), and the costumes by Ana Kuzmanic providing an air of earthy realism. Keith Parham's lighting design has a natural, rural feel and deftly recreates the four times of day (afternoon, night, morning and evening) of the play's action. In the hands of Falls and a cast including many of Chicago's finest actors, Uncle Vanya is entertaining, funny and touching. Chekhov described his plays as comedies, often to the befuddlement of audiences. Here, you know what he meant.

Tim Hopper gives us a skillful mix of comedy and pathos in his portrayal of Vanya, the quiet 47-year-old who is the loyal manager of the estate presumably owned by the husband of Vanya's late sister, Professor Alexander Serebryakov (David Darlow). For decades, Vanya has dutifully overseen the property and sent its meager profits to Serebryakov, keeping only small salaries for himself and his niece Sonya (Caroline Neff). In recent years, Vanya has quietly pined for the professor's beautiful young second wife Yelena (Kristen Bush). Hopper masterfully takes Vanya from quiet desperation and ironic detachment through to exasperation and despair in the final act.

Caroline Neff is heartbreaking as the quiet niece Sonya (the professor's daughter by his first marriage) who, like Vanya, has been harboring a secret love. She silently longs for the neighbor Dr. Astrov (Marton Csokas), a handsome middle-aged scientist who despairs of the destruction of wildlife in the region. Astrov is far more concerned about animals than humans. He barely notices Sonya and is completely unaware of her interest in him. His physical presence and the air of mystery his Astrov projects makes him a plausible love interest for Sonya (and, for that matter, Yelena).

The New York-based Kristen Bush (who, along with Csokas, is one of the two key actors imported from out of town) makes a perfect Yelena—as beautiful as the text tells, to be sure, but giving a complex and layered performance of the woman whose relationships to the others in the house are, to say the least, complicated. Suspected of marrying the professor for his money, Yelena must convince us (as Bush does) that she indeed has affection for the man. At the same time, she's sensitive to the needs and feelings of Vanya and Sonya. Though she is viewed as an interloper by some (the servant Nanny and neighbor Telegin, both in expert character turns by Mary Ann Thebus and Larry Neumann, Jr.), she has empathy for the other members of the professor's family. And with her position as the professor's wife, as well as her physical attractiveness, she's in a position to influence all these people. She tries to manage the household's delicate situations with compassion and kindness. As her husband, the professor Serebryakov, David Darlow is appropriately crusty and un-self-aware. One might have wished for a more idiosyncratic performance to flesh out this man who is insensitive to the needs of his daughter, but Darlow's take is unadorned and unpretentious. Quirkier is Marilyn Dodds Frank's take on Vanya's mother, Maria, as a charmingly dotty dowager.

Falls' direction maintains a leisurely but brisk pace that makes the 2:40 run time, longer than the norm for contemporary plays, feel just right. He brings us into the world of one crucial 24-hour period (give or take a few hours) of the human struggle for fulfillment with humor and grace. Vanya's ending, though hardly a "happy" one, is nonetheless uplifting. Chekhov doesn't suggest Vanya and Sonya will necessarily find happiness, but they have at least found some closure for their long-denied dreams of love and acceptance. And they will persist until the end of their days. Sometimes that's uplift enough.

Uncle Vanya will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through March 19, 2017. For tickets and further information, visit or call 312-443-3800.

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