The reviews are in for “Uncle Vanya”

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Mo Perry as Sonya and Craig Johnson as Uncle Vanya in the Anton Chekhov classic.

Gremlin Theatre presents Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” through April 23. What follows are excerpts from reviews about town – click on the links to read them in their entirety.

From Brad Richason at Examiner.com

…Centered on a modest family estate in rural Russia during the waning summer days of 1899, Uncle Vanya brings together an assortment of characters straining under repressed resentments, impossible desires, and bitter class conflicts. Until that summer the management of the estate had fallen to Uncle Vanya and his unmarried niece, Sonya. Through years of monotonous toil, Vanya and Sonya maintained the estate while sacrificing the meager profits to support Sonya’s father, Alexander Serebryakov, a retired university professor living in the city with his much younger second wife, Elena. Even with few creature comforts, Vanya and Sonya seldom questioned their duties until their routine is interrupted by the arrival of Alexander and Elena, come to the country in hopes of curing Alexander’s failing health. The tensions aroused by the couple’s presence, further exasperated by the attentions of the local doctor, threaten to render the carefully calibrated lives into complete disarray.

In terms of storyline, Uncle Vanya resembles a uniquely pastoral soap opera, filled with familial rancor and hidden romantic longings, but bereft of any glamorous seductions. A more profound distinction can be found in Chekhov’s complex characters and charged dialogue, each interaction drawing out the fraught dynamics of this fragile family. Director Janice Stone puts the figures into motion with a consistent pace that admittedly does accumulate some languidness as the work moves into its second half. Thankfully the cast pick up the slack with performances that reverberate with emotional nuance.

Craig Johnson is remarkable as the central figure, charismatically expressing Vanya’s disillusion through sarcastic swipes at everything in his path. Voicing his dialogue with informal naturalism, Johnson is utterly compelling in the role, especially as Vanya reveals more of his tortured soul. By the play’s confessional resolution, Johnson has done nothing short of exposing the exacting pain of a life examined too late for change.

Insightfully perceptive and emotionally involving, Gremlin Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya should be required viewing for anyone inclined to shrug off Chekhov as a dramatic chore. Though the work eschews romantic notions, the sincerity of unvarnished emotion only proves the more poignant.

From Graydon Royce at Star Tribune:

If warm weekend breezes tempted you to loll idly in the sun, Anton Chekhov has the antidote.

“Work. That’s what we must do, work,” says the title character near the end of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Stunned by recent events, Vanya desperately takes solace in the exhortations of his niece, Sonya, to go on living and working and enduring. For in this, she passionately comforts her uncle, we find our purpose and we will enjoy our reward in the next world.

Sonya’s closing speech — not to mention the mien of the actor playing the role — indicates how a particular production intends to interpret “Uncle Vanya.” For example, critic Eric Bentley — arguing for an earthbound reality — wrote that “work for these people is not a means to happiness but a drug that will help them to forget.” Janice Stone’s fine production at Gremlin Theatre wishes for itself more redemption and grace.

It is a choice that actor Mo Perry embraces with good-hearted decency and compassion. As Craig Johnson’s Vanya sits exhausted and numb, Perry’s Sonya cradles his head and encourages him to, yes, work and then find his rest. It is a moment of devastating poignancy that allows perhaps more hopefulness than Chekhov intended, but nonetheless seems true to his meditation on the tragic constancy of everyday life.

In “Uncle Vanya,” we watch Chekhov at his best — walking the tight wire between comedy and tragedy. Johnson rages like a harlequin; his Vanya packs a pistol during a tantrum against his pompous former brother-in-law, professor Alexander Serebryakov. Yet, in his verbal typhoons we realize that Vanya’s hatred is aimed not only at this insufferable visitor to the country estate, but at himself — for allowing his own bad choices and inertia to bully him into a wasted life.

From Renee Valois at the Pioneer Press:

…Throwing all of these opposing desires and frustrations together is a bit like tossing water on a grease fire — it makes for great drama. Director Janice Stone boosts the flames, tossing any residual 19th-century-era restraint out the window as characters shout at each other, steal passionate kisses, writhe in agony and plot murder.

Some of Chekhov’s characters convey modern environmental and political sensibility; the young doctor has a passion for preserving the disappearing forests of his homeland, and Vanya’s mother reads political pamphlets and asserts her right to speak her opinions at a time when women couldn’t vote.

But it is Vanya’s character who provides a firm backbone for the theme that disillusionment and despair result from shoving aside one’s dreams to support others’ ambitions. Johnson vividly conveys Vanya’s decline, starting with sharp, cynical humor that gives way to desperate romantic entreaties, increasing tirades against the professor and his lot, raging violence and finally numbing, suicidal despair.

However, the most moving lines in the play are not spoken by Johnson. It is Perry, as sweet, kind Sonya who evokes truly heartbreaking resignation to a dismal life with no hope of betterment. Her insistent, repeated declaration, “I have faith,” sounds like she’s struggling to convince herself as much as Vanya that they may find a final happiness somewhere beyond this world.

Have you seen “Uncle Vanya?” If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.

  • Daniel Pinkerton

    This is a wonderful production of Vanya that is both funny and moving. The review by Renee Valois perfectly expresses my feelings. The last paragraph, in particular, is something I’ve been going around saying to friends. Sonya is not just trying to comfort her uncle at the end; she is desperately trying to convince herself that she does have faith and that it will be rewarded.