In Uncle Vanya—one of Anton Chekhov’s four masterpiece plays—an aging professor, Serebryakov, and his young, beautiful wife, Yelena, reside in their country estate, which is run by the Serebryakov’s daughter, Sonya, and his first wife’s brother, Vanya. A doctor, Astrov, visits the family, and although Sonya longs for him, he—like Vanya—pines for Yelena. As the whole clan dwindles the hours by drinking tea and resenting their provincial routines, they lose sight of their youth, dreams, and passions. Still, they live, and they persevere.
Building upon Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker’s contemporary-sounding adaptation, Robert Falls’ production of Uncle Vanya at the Goodman Theatre forces us to face the probability that our individual lives won’t matter a hundred years from now. (Read my interview with the production’s dramaturg, Neena Arndt.) Isn’t it inevitable that some days—or weeks or months—will pass by without purpose, no matter how much we talk or work? Although the Serebryakov pores over his books, he will probably never write a dissertation worth reading. Although Sonya manages the housekeeping and finances for the entire family, no one notices her. The characters philosophize about how they’ve plateaued, yet they’re too paralyzed by tediousness—and maybe fear—to adapt their privileged lifestyle.
The cast embodies a deep understanding of what keeps their characters afloat while feeling detached from their hopes. In a bright yet hoarse voice, Tim Hopper’s Vanya entertains himself by poking fun at his family—forcing them to analyze their own choices and mistakes—and fantasizing about Yelena. As he monologues, he works himself into tizzies as thought-provoking as they are absorbing.
Whether lamenting her own boredom or joking with the men that adore her, Yelena, played by Kristen Bush, shines. She’s at her best when she’s talking to herself—stomping out her frustrations while her husband’s prattling keeps her awake, unable to suppress a smile as she thinks about Astrov.
With a thick beard masking most of his face, Marton Csokas as Astrov demands that you watch his eyes. Subtle yet rich with emotion, they crinkle during Vanya’s amusing rants, glisten when he says goodbye to Yelena. Beneath the beard, the corner of his lip twitches when he grieves.
David Farlow captures the Serebryakov’s many dichotomies—intelligent yet useless, well-meaning but oblivious, frustrating yet sympathetic. A selfless worker, Sonya, portrayed by Caroline Neff, deserves the most praise and pity, yet she also incites some of the most unexpected laughs. The rest of the cast—including the nurse (Mary Ann Thebus), “Waffles” (Larry Neumann, Jr.), Vanya’s mother (Marilyn Dodds Frank), and two workmen (Olexiy Kryvych and Alžan Pelesić)—nails every line. During late-night fights and quiet afternoons, the audience chuckles after one-line zingers and pauses in thought as Chekhovian philosophy trickles through the characters’ musings. They may not change in the way you want (or the way they want), but you care for them nonetheless.
The set, sound, and costuming—intimate and lovely in their meticulousness—solidify the nuanced realism that made the Chekhov-Stanislavsky duo famous in the first place. In nighttime scenes, the occasional candle casts a faint, orange glow on the characters’ faces, hiding their resentments in shadow. When it rains, poor Sonya sets out buckets to catch the drip-drip-drips from a patchy roof. Maria’s Norma Desmond-like turban instinctually makes you question her rationality as much as her son does.
A brilliant exploration of aging, regret, and listlessness, the Goodman’s Uncle Vanya invites you to challenge monotony—if not in practice, then at least in your mind. Beautifully rendered and precisely acted, this family’s quiet aches will leave you with questions you may not be able to answer until you, too, live long enough to watch stolen time slip by.
For contemporary novels about dysfunctional domesticity, peruse the list below, linked to their excerpted Booklist reviews:
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
This is Patchett’s most autobiographical novel, a sharply funny, chilling, entrancing, and profoundly affecting look into one family’s ‘commonwealth,’ its shared affinities, conflicts, loss, and love.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
At once miniaturistic and panoramic, Franzen’s prodigious comedic saga renders family life on an epic scale.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch
The story starts off casually and unassumingly with a dinner between two brothers, one running for prime minister of the Netherlands, along with their wives at one of Amsterdam’s finest establishments.
Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag
The narrator, a young man, tells the story of his family, which includes his parents, his paternal uncle, his sister, and his wife, and the thriving spice business that changes their lives in ways great and small.
Here I am, by Jonathan Safran Foer
“…He choreographs the disintegration of the once blissfully close marriage of architect Julia and TV writer Jacob, exploring how their changing relationship affects their three sons….”
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
“In a compact novel brimming with insight and emotion, Strout relays with great tenderness and sadness the way family relationships can both make and break us.”
The Nest, byCynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
“Readers will feel as though they’re sitting right next to the clan as they bicker and barter.”
This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper
“Tropper is spot-on with his observations of family relationships as each member deals with new grief, old resentments, and life’s funny twists of fate.”
The Wangs vs. the World, by Jade Chang
“It turns out that the Wangs can’t function without the trappings of their now-lost lavish lifestyle, a situation that gives the road trip a decidedly wacky bent and infuses the novel with humor.”