Riverside’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ achieves a moment of peace

Uncle Vanya

Riverside Theatre — through Oct. 6

Tim Budd in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The last time I saw a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya was in 1991 in Moscow. It was good. Last weekend, Riverside Theater opened its 39th season with a new translation (by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) of Uncle Vanya.

Directed by Adam Knight, Riverside’s production is outstanding.

A story of family relationships, an examination of how one lives their life, and unrequited love all take equal stage time throughout Uncle Vanya. This show is very much a psychological drama, and as such makes demands on the actors: Every line must be clear, every silent expression must be as weighty as a line of dialogue, each pause must be perfectly timed. What I saw this past weekend at Riverside Theatre was near perfection.

S. Benjamin Ferrar designed a unique minimalistic set on which to stage the drama; the lighting, while not flashy, supported the moods of the show throughout. Tim Budd plays Vanya, a man confronting middle age in rural Russia. Vanya is at once resentful, hopeful and resigned. Budd brings each emotion to life every minute he is on stage, with unparalleled precision. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.

Katy Hahn (L) and Jessica Link in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The other performances are equally strong. Elena (Katy Hahn) and Sonya (Jessica Link) are friendly foils: Hahn plays the beautiful, worldly woman to Link’s hardworking country girl. You watch their relationship grow slowly throughout the play. Their portrayal put me in mind of the many Russian women I knew when I lived in Moscow.

Krista Neumann and Rachael Lindhart bring the older generation onto the stage as, respectively, Marya Vassileyevna and Marina Timofeevna. Neumann embodies a mother’s devotion to the husband of her deceased daughter, as we see her admiration both on stage and in Vanya’s telling of the past support the entire family gave Alexander Vladimirovich (Eric Forsythe). Forsythe plays the aged professor who, not unlike Vanya, had hoped to make something of his life, only to end up in old age doubting his own value — and in need of money.

(L-R) Eric Forsythe, Katy Hahn, Krista Neumann, Tim Budd and Jessica Link in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Lindhart’s Marina is a peasant woman of the age who believes all can be solved by a lot of tea, a little vodka and an occasional prayer. Although arguably minor characters, again, I saw real people come to life through their portrayals.

As a central character in the unrequited love storyline, Joshua Fryvecind brings Mikhail Lvovich to life. But it is through his impassioned monologues about the environment and the forests that one realizes Chekhov had a message for today’s world: The forests are in danger, and we must protect them. This is all a reaction to the Russian idea that living in the country is a bore and city life is to be desired; however, listen carefully and you will hear a modern environmentalist message.

Tim Budd (L) and Katy Hanh in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

If one knows Russian literature, one knows there are precious few happy endings; Uncle Vanya is not one of those few. This company pulls the audience into this family so thoroughly that as we watch their relationships come undone and get put back together, we feel we are a part of this family. Despite the strife of being part of this family, we are reminded, as Sonya says, “What must we do? We must live our lives.” By the end of the play, the actors’ and audience’s emotions are spent, and the final tableau, if unhappy, is peaceful.

Uncle Vanya runs through Oct. 6 at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $30.

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