What's one of the biggest challenge facing the cast and crew of the new production of Uncle Vanya at the Guthrie Theater?
Convincing people "that it isn't a dark depressing funeral march," says Jim Lichtscheidl, who plays Ilya Telegin (usually referred to as "Waffles") in the production directed by Joe Dowling. "It is very much real. These characters and situations are almost contemporary in the way that we behave today. It is timeless in that aspect. It is more easily identifiable than they imagine."
That goes for the actors as well. "There is nothing to fear in Chekhov. It is almost simple as far as performing: be real and in the moment," he says.
Lichtscheidl has performed in plays by the Russian master before, having played in Three Sisters at the Guthrie back in 2002.
This time around, the script comes via an adaptation by Irish playwright Brian Friel. "There is an Irish sensibility. There are certain words and phrases that aren't so recognizable. Joe would inform us as to what a particular turn of a phrase means," Lichtscheidl says.
Friel's work also expanded a number of the secondary characters in the play, including Lichtscheidl's. All of this adds to the sense of family and community that lies at the center of the work.
For Telegin, the driving force is "unyielding optimism. If you look at all the characters, his life may be the most tragic, but what he does is chooses to look past it and look to the nice things in life. He chooses not to dwell on those past foibles," Lichtscheidl says. "He really tries to lighten the mood a lot. He is almost a court jester in a way."
The company includes Melissa Hart, Emily Gunyou Halaas, John Catron, and Valeri Mudek. "Joe mentioned you can rehearse a Chekhov play for six months and still have something to discover. With the time we've had, we've created an ensemble that is a living, breathing community. As we go along it will just get stronger," Lichtscheidl says.
Dowling's knowledge of Chekhov and this particular play has also been a great aid. "This is one of Joe's favorite Chekhov plays. He knows these characters inside out and has a strong, clear vision of all these characters and this play. It just helps as an actor to start off with that knowledge that the director loves it and so knowledgeable about it. You feel safe within it," Lichtscheidl says.
During the play, Lichtscheidl gets to show off an old passion. "I'm playing the guitar in this production and it is something I love. It is something I don't get the opportunity to do much."
That doesn't mean there hasn't been a bit of pain along the way.
"I didn't have calluses, so I had to build them up again. Yesterday in tech while we were working on a scene over and over again, my fingers were hurting," he says.
IF YOU GO:
In previews Saturday through September 19; regular run September 20 through October 27
Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online