Playwright Craig Lucas and director Bartlett Sher clearly have an affinity for Chekhov. Their 2005 version of “The Three Sisters” was ravishing and their new “Uncle Vanya” is equally so. From the opening view of John McDermott’s breathtaking set — huge, empty frames suggesting a series of drafty rooms — to the closing embrace between long-suffering Vanya and his stalwart niece Sonya, the world-premiere production at Seattle’s Intiman Theater creates a rich and convincing world in which hope and despair, humor and heartbreak commingle.
As with “The Three Sisters,” Lucas has approached “Vanya” with restraint. The familiar story of a fading country estate upended by a visit from a professor (Allen Fitzpatrick) and his beautiful, indolent wife, Elena (Samantha Mathis), is unchanged. Missing are some of the flowery phrasing and other distractions of earlier versions. The result is a quick, potent, deadly honest testament to life’s disappointments:
Astrov: Talk about something else.
Astrov: Anything, what’s new?
Vanya: Nothing, everything’s old.
Sher’s trick is to take this plain talk and mine all its subtext and humor. When Vanya (Mark Nelson) flatly confesses his hopeless love for Elena, he says, “My feelings are perishing in vain like a sunbeam in a dungeon, and I’m perishing, too.” At this moment of extreme dejection, he inadvertently washes his face in a basin of water that Elena’s husband has just used to soak his diseased foot. Scenes like this one — funny, pathetic and sad — pile up so fast in Lucas and Sher’s “Vanya” you barely have time to savor them.
The scene changes offer a little welcome time for reflection: In half-light, sets and actors skim across the stage to music composed by Adam Guettel, who collaborated with Sher and Lucas on “The Light in the Piazza.” These lovely shadowplays seem perfectly in keeping with the production’s poignant tone.
But when the lights come back on, the cast wastes no time plunging into the play’s many contradictions. Tim Hopper portrays Astrov, the country doctor, as a man brilliant at everything except love. Mathis plays up Elena’s one fault, laziness, while Kristin Flanders emphasizes Sonya’s virtue, hard work.
Some details of casting and interpretation are open to second-guessing. For instance, though she’s a terrific actress, the graceful, doe-eyed Flanders seems an odd choice for “plain” Sonya. And Nelson’s Vanya, though convincingly passionate, is a touch histrionic for a character best served by masking his inner turmoil with decorum. But the degree of unity with which this cast operates makes these minor flaws.
The play’s theme of deforestation is timely. Astrov laments the environmental degradation brought about by logging of the Russian countryside. But this production is one for the ages. True, there is no one right way to stage Chekhov, but it’s hard to imagine an approach any further from wrong.
Just one question remains for Lucas and Sher: What’s next — “The Seagull” or “The Cherry Orchard”?