Uncle Vanya at Gremline Theatre

Lives like these are why Russians invented vodka: Mo Perry and Craig Johnson

Lives like these are why Russians invented vodka: Mo Perry and Craig Johnson

In a decaying backwater town of pre-Revolution Russia, a cast of characters is trapped—by their expectations, by the dictates of society, and by their own sense of failure. A heavy doom hangs over Anton Chekhov's play from the beginning, which, despite the occasional traces of humor, cannot be erased, even by a seemingly healing rain.

Gremlin Theatre's production keeps it all close to the vest, which makes the heady discussions of the first act a bit tough at times. The approach pays off in the second act, however, as the heat of the situation rises to the point of passion, anger, and violence. All three, as it turns out, are ineffectual. Solid acting from the company and directing from Janice Stone drive the play forward, which can be a challenge with characters whose inertia came to rest many years before.

At the center of the play is an aging family in decline. Vanya has spent 25 years toiling on the family estate, sending the proceeds off to his sister and her professor husband, Alexander. His sister, however, is long dead, and Alexander has married a much younger woman, Elena. Both Vanya and the region's doctor, Astrov, are secretly in love with her, while Alexander's daughter, Sonya, secretly loves Astrov.

All the secrets will come to a head, and when they do, they reopen old wounds for everyone—wounds from where their lives have taken them and how any joy they might have found in life has been crushed by duty, expectations, and the rules of polite society.

The mannered acting of the play's first half gives way to hotter passions in the second—well, hot for middle-class 19th-century Russians at least. It is Vanya who eventually breaks, horrified by his brother-in-law's proposal to sell the estate to keep him in comfort in the city, with no thought for those who have toiled their entire lives on the family property.

Craig Johnson, who also crafted the clear-eyed adaptation, lets us know how beaten Vanya is in every weary inflection of his voice and every slumped-shoulder walk across the stage. When the quiet suffering finally ends, the character is still as ineffectual—he can't even shoot a man from a few feet away.

Equal in suffering, though for different reasons, is Carl Schoenborn's Astrov. The doctor has been worn down by different factors—he complains at the play's beginning of not having had a day off in a decade—but his passion isn't as dulled as Vanya's. Schoenborn doesn't smolder enough to pull off the dark, handsome lover side of the role, but he perfectly captures the character's intellectual passion and rage at the destruction of the province's forests.

Stephanie Cousins and Mo Perry play two very different women, but ones trapped just as much as the men. Again, Cousins doesn't quite have the presence to make you believe that the unattached men of the story would fall head over heels for her Elena.

Perry, however, brings Sonya to crystal-clear life. Of all the characters, Sonya has the most to live for, but the crushing indifference to the plight of her father and the doctor trap her on a path very similar to that of her uncle.

The story is rounded out by solid work from the rest of the company, from the outsized bluster of David Rinzema as the professor to Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding's aging, nearly deaf matriarch.

Uncle Vanya shows us a family and a place where the rot started so long ago that there's no way to stop it. In his darkest moments, Vanya waves his fist at the fates for forcing him to live such a useless life in service to a man he now despises. The doctor recognizes all of this in Vanya and can see much the same fate for himself, like the maps he studies show the slow destruction of the province's environment.

In the end, the characters are all talk. They talk about their lost hopes and dreams, about their passions and secret loves and desires, but none is able to act on them. The play ends with the characters largely where they started: Vanya and Sonya trapped on the estate; the professor away and infirm, his young wife there as caretaker, not lover; and the doctor, riding off to study his maps and drink alone, wondering how long it will be before he is exactly like Vanya.