Review: Keeping up the pace with ‘Uncle Vanya’ (Quintessence Theatre Group)

 Kevin Bergen (left) and Steven Wright as Vanya, in Quintessence Theatre Group's production of 'Uncle Vanya.' (Photo courtesy of Shawn May)

Kevin Bergen (left) and Steven Wright as Vanya, in Quintessence Theatre Group's production of 'Uncle Vanya.' (Photo courtesy of Shawn May)

One glib maxim defines the entirety of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”: Life sucks, then you die. Chekhov loads his masterpiece with characters who are bored, depressed and overwhelmed by their own introspection — every navel on stage will be thoroughly gazed.

So I can understand anyone who says that such utter gloom and unhappiness, set in a country house where friends and family are stuck on themselves and on desires that can’t be fulfilled, makes for a dull play. Those are the people who bailed after the first half of the “Uncle Vanya” that Quintessence Theatre Project opened Saturday night. They made up maybe a tenth of the audience.

The rest of us were treated to a more powerful second half, partly because the play develops a plot in its later acts and partly because the production began to click. If Quintessence artistic director Alexander Burns had turned up the metronome even a notch in his staging, his “Uncle Vanya” would have carried more of that power from the start.

I realize the built-in contradiction here: Should we expect Chekhov’s examination of boredom and despair to be anything but slow and oppressive? Well, yes. Although “Uncle Vanya” is a mood piece loaded with whining, it’s also a deep look at upper-crust country life in pre-revolutionary Russia. It sizes up a fading educated class that’s mired itself in … well … fading.

Still, I don’t think “Uncle Vanya” needs to be as slow as it is at Quintessence and neither did the Russians who first staged it a few years after Chekhov wrote the play in 1896. According to a piece from the American Repertory Theatre, Chekhov’s original script had 50 pauses written in. The production pulled out 40 of them.

Silence on stage can deliver a muscular punch. The popular contemporary playwright Annie Baker uses long pauses that she sometimes even counts out in a script, and they can be brutally revealing. Five years ago, Baker wrote a new translation of “Uncle Vanya” and I don’t know whether she explicitly asks for pauses. Quintessence is using that script, and for whatever reason, the pacing seemed needlessly sluggish at times.

But not the script itself. I went home after the performance and compared Baker’s version with one being done 100 years ago — Maria Fell’s 1916 translation, now on the Internet. The two are remarkably similar. The difference: Annie Baker has updated the language judiciously (no one was calling anyone a “creep” back then) and she’s whittled down some long-winded dialogue. She has greatly respected Chekhov and — get this — picked up the play’s pacing.

When the second half needs a quiet intensity, director Burns makes sure the production generates it. He’s assembled a terrific cast. Vanya, who lives on his late sister’s rural estate, is the superb Steven Wright, who gives the overwhelmed man both nuance and a dented but proud nobility. He’s being driven nuts by his brother-in-law, an ill, droning retired professor who’s moved in with his young wife and demands the attention of everyone non-stop. The doctor’s played by veteran actor Dan Kern, breathing fresh air into the production whenever he appears on stage, and his alluring wife is thoughtfully, sensually portrayed by Julia Frey.

She’s being hit on by the village physician (Kevin Bergen, excellent), who comes in and out of the house on pretexts so that he can see her. And he’s the love fantasy for Vanya’s niece who is said to be plain and sulks because of it. Despite this, she’s lovely in the productions I’ve seen including this one, with a smart portrayal by Jessica M. Johnson. The cast is rounded out by Susan Chase as a nanny out to protect everyone from themselves, David Blatt as a guitar-playing hanger-on, Rosalyn Jamal as Vanya’s mom and Daniel Ison as a house-helper who plays piano at times.

Whatever they’ve done (or haven’t), these characters regret. They drown their psyches in liquor. They look for things to get worse. I was impressed to see such a well-wrought display of angst by the cast. And relieved when the complaint department was finally closed for the night.

“Uncle Vanya,” produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through June 18 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood. 215-987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.

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