Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Uncle Vanya
St. Louis Actors' Studio

Review by Richard T. Green

Michael James Reed, Greg Johnston,
Bryn McLaughlin, John Pierson, Eleanor Mullin,
Jennelle Gilreath Owens,
and Michael Musgrave-Perkins

Photo by Patrick Huber
When you get a great director–Annamaria Pileggi here at St. Louis Actors' Studio, probably the best director in town–managing a very fine cast, you know that something unexpected must be in the works. And in this new production of Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya, John Pierson adds a lot of humor in the title role. Which is not totally unexpected.

But this Vanya also has the ability to ruthlessly mock himself, and get laughs for it in the process. This strange, funny power turns gradually darker (mostly) in a show that speeds through two hours and forty-five minutes. Which is rather unexpected, because it seems shorter. And somehow, I'd rather be led through a mad, internal limbo by an actor like this than through a pretty little lie by anyone else.

And the moments of discovery run fast and deep in this translation by pugnacious playwright Neil LaBute. Director Pileggi dusts off every Chekovian exchange like an archeologist combing through a Roman ruin, and even unearths what seems like a previously undiscovered Slavic sight gag in the very last moments of the show. If sight-gags can be subtle and tragicomic, I mean.

Michael James Reed plays Dr. Astrov, the other half of Vanya's darkly comic duo on stage. Astrov winces in pain when told of a medical emergency at a provincial factory and has several grim medical insights, reminding us of Chekov's own past life as a late-19th century physician.

In more colorful moments, both Mr. Reed and Mr. Pierson are wonderfully kinetic, inveighing against each man's sense of brutalized vitality. And each is desperate to love another man's wife, giving us just two of the myriad unrequited love subplots in a dour rom-com, filled to the brim with unrequitedness. Let's face it, the sheer number of professed heartbreaks here becomes subversively comic after a while. And yet! In the end, the final visual arrangement turns heartbreak on its head.

Jennelle Gilreath Owens is the object of both men's affection, as Yelena: the ornamental, pre-Revolutionary symbol of the end-use of all Russian sacrifice (her lovely costumes are by Teresa Doggett). But she becomes less silly, and indeed mournful, as she spins her own anguished tale on Patrick Huber's dreamlike set. Like many of Chekov's characters, Yelena gradually rebels against her own apparent symbolism.

Bryn McLaughlin combines heartache with intelligence and great pacing as Sonia, the other half of the work team (with Vanya) that keeps an old family farm running, allowing Yelena and Vanya's brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov, to live comfortably in Moscow on the profits. Like the other main characters, Sonia seems to feel deeply miscast. It's a dynamic that emerges in Ibsen and Shaw as well, opening the door to much of 20th century drama. The vain and imposing professor is ably played by Greg Johnston, personifying the chaos that invades a September's harvest season, bullying or charming by turns.

Local stage icons Eleanor Mullin and Jan Meyer play the nanny and Vanya's mother, respectively, and each combines sensitivity and authenticity with perfect economy. Michael Musgrave-Perkins is the kindly and laconic Telegin, the farm's handyman, bemused to be smitten with Yelena's beauty as well.

The famous Russian play has troubling parallels to modern American life, where the rich city folk strip the value out of the lives of country people. And Astrov delivers presentations on the process of deforestation in the local region, presaging our own worries about climate change. (In the earliest form of Uncle Vanya, in an 1889 script, the doctor was the title character in a nascent work known as The Wood Demon.)

Humanity in this show, even with all the many grace notes of humor, unfolds through all the things these characters don't have–or imagine they don't. Although, in this impeccable staging, Vanya's deeply Russian worry is unexpectedly given the lie in the end–by all the reassurance that quietly surrounds him, as darkness falls.

Uncle Vanya runs through March 5, 2023, at the St. Louis Actors' Studio, Gaslight Studio, 358 N. Boyle, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

Vanya: John Pierson*
Astrov: Michael James Reed*
Maria: Jan Meyer
Serebryakov: Greg Johnston
Marina: Eleanor Mullin
Telegin: Michael Musgrave-Perkins
Sonya: Bryn McLaughlin
Yelena: Jenelle Gilreath Owens

Production Staff:
Director: Annamaria Pileggi
Assistant Director: Miranda Jagels Felix
Stage Manager: Amy J. Paige*
Set/Light Designer: Patrick Huber
Sound Designer: Annamaria Pileggi
Sound Technician: Opal Andrews
Costumes: Teresa Doggett
Props: Jenny Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Brasher
Board Operator: Alexander Huber
House Manager: Sally Liz

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association