McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann, who directed a sumptuous “Three Sisters” in 1992 and an accomplished production of “The Cherry Orchard” three years ago, now helms an honorable “Uncle Vanya.” Mann’s admirably fluent adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s bittersweet comedy boasts a contemporary crispness, although it offers little sense of Old Russia.
This expansive ensemble piece is graced with an exceptionally fine cast. As Vanya, the melancholic estate manager, Steven Skybell displays little frustration and despair until the second act. His is a muted, mannered Vanya. Skybell saves it all up for the big second-act rampaging tantrum, when he learns that the estate will be sold and his further service may be jeopardized. His desperation is unleashed with manic fury and exaggerated comic expression.
The sweet surprise is Amanda Plummer’s spinsterish Sonya. It’s an absorbing performance, layered with inner anguish and the hesitant flush of unrequited love. Her sad, gentle laughter can’t help but bring a tear or two to the eye.
Georgine Hall is a bit too skittish as Yelena, the flirtatious and bored young wife of the old professor, but her misplaced ardor for the frustrated Dr. Astrov is beautifully expressed. In that plum role, Michael Siberry boasts a casual, indifferent air and a painful sense of misplaced passion. Astrov’s weary restlessness is clearly defined in Siberry’s subtle approach.
William Biff McGuire, a vet of six decades on the stage, brings a good deal of blustering grit to the role of the insufferable, gout-ridden old professor. He is a wily curmudgeon, and McGuire skillfully taps the play’s humor.
Jonathan Hogan, as the impoverished neighbor landowner, adds a gently goofy touch. He is an innocent bystander, amused, confused and relatively unaffected by the fevered behavior of his erratic neighbors. The old servant Marina is played with distinction by Isa Thomas.
Michael Yeargen’s set is flanked by two dozen stretching and limbless tree trunks that offer no sense of seasonal change. The country estate is otherwise sparsely furnished, relatively barren and cold, with little atmospheric comfort.
Mann’s keenly paced staging captures the idle spirit of the play and its restlessly bored inhabitants with distinction. One can only anticipate her “Seagull,” certain to follow in a few seasons.