This past summer I made myself go see Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya. They brought it to New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, and because the tickets are expensive, the show is long, and the run is so short, I came up with a billion reasons not to go. But I really loved STC’s production of Hedda Gabbler at BAM back in 2006, and I feel like it’s silly to miss an opportunity to see Cate Blanchett on stage, so I just used that credit card that’s always $100 from being maxed out anyway and went to see it.
Whenever I’m feel particularly boastful after a drink or two, you might catch me claiming that “Uncle Vanya, hic, is my favorite Chekhov play.” When in fact, Uncle Vanya is the only Chekhov play I’ve seen in performance. But I really do love it– it’s slow, not much happens and yet everything happens, and it presents a kind of crushing, acute reminder of the pain of living and trying to love and deal in the world.
This production had all of that, but it also had a bouyancy about it that I can’t seem to forget. I’ve seen productions of Uncle Vanya that are certainly beautiful and poignant, but they definitely feel like “eat your spinach” theater– long, dour, a world without much light. Which I guess might be the Russia Chekhov creates, but he also creates a Russia where people need music, drink like Vikings, sing at the top of the lungs, crave the human touch, and break into dance. Their inability to have all of these things in a consistent way is one of the reasons his work feels so heartbreaking to me. And when you get a glimpse of how these characters might live if they could get out of their own ways, when you see how one’s life could be if perhaps fear wasn’t such a constant, it is absolutely both the happiest and saddest thing in the world. This production of Uncle Vanya allowed us to see how happy these people might be, how their lives could feel like a Saturday night as opposed to Monday morning– we see that glint of possibility, and when it’s taken away, when they realize their dreams are only dreams and life is probably one, long, monotonous stretch, the shock of the realization just takes your breath away.