A Chekhov production demands a balancing act: Despair and levity have to coexist, just like symbolism and psychological realism, or else part of the play’s richness will be lost. In her staging of “Uncle Vanya” at Bard College’s Summerscape Festival, director Erica Schmidt, aided by a sterling team of creatives, gets the balance right.
Like so much of Chekhov’s work, “Vanya” presents the erosion of both a privileged Russian clan and the world that has sustained them. And in this play, particular attention is paid to those who sacrifice their lives in service of the supposedly great.
The anchors are Vanya (Peter Dinklage) and his niece Sonya (Mandy Siegfried), who have spent decades overseeing the farm owned by Sonya’s father, a retired professor (Robert Hogan.) Unfortunately for them, the professor has a new wife, Yelena (Taylor Schilling), and he may sell his farm. And thanks to years of logging, even the forest is disappearing.
Play explores how Vanya and Sonya react to this change, but their reactions are never simple. Moments of defeat are always matched by revolt.
That duality guides Mark Wendland’s set, which drops the play into an evocative box. The space has a low ceiling, but it’s at least 15 feet wide and almost twice as deep. It feels claustrophobic and open at the same time.
The furniture enhances the paradox: Everything is crammed into the downstage left corner so that most of the playing space is an empty void. Past the heap of chairs and tables, all we see is wallpaper stamped with images of trees, with large sections peeling down to the floor.
This begs a vital question: Is the room in the corner the last gasp of civilization, about to be swallowed whole? Or is the furniture a sign of people pushing back, of a dogged vitality that refuses to be destroyed?
Lighting designer David Weiner also makes room for light and darkness. Nighttime scenes are staged in shadows, with actors gliding between ghostly patches of light. When characters bemoan their unrequited love or existential ennui, it’s like they’re trapped in a nightmare of secrets. But then the sun rises, flooding the stage, and the same passions seem full of life.
Those shifts wouldn’t work, of course, without a remarkably fine-tuned cast. Against the suggestive design, Schmidt keeps her thesps contained, which enhances both extremes. Seeing realistic people in a figurative world only clarifies the forces they barely comprehend.
But even though they’re restrained, the perfs burst with life. When Dinklage catches Yelena kissing the town doctor (Ritchie Coster), he expresses his hurt through stillness. He loves Yelena, too, and by standing still at the back of the empty stage, eyes locked on her, he speaks volumes about his loneliness.
Dinklage projects the same soulful pain in the film “The Station Agent,” but Schmidt, his wife, also gives him room to be a fool, using several drunken tirades to provoke bleak laughter.
But it’s Schilling, in her first major role, who makes the biggest impression. She turns Yelena into a bewitching, tortured woman, as likely to loathe her own privilege and beauty as she is to exploit them with the men who worship her. She can let a feeling flicker across her face for just a second, then regain her haughty posture as she stalks the gaping stage. She personifies the contradictions that make the play so stirring.