So: Vanya is a virgin. Of course! It’s everywhere! The confusion of infatuation and love (“You are my joy, my life and my youth!”); the ridiculous superlatives (“I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman in my entire life.”). The childish ideal of feminine purity (“a noble, gentle creature, pure as that blue sky above”); the false, showy cynicism (“Is she faithful to the Professor?” Astrov asks. “Unfortunately yes.”). The bumbling assertiveness when he lunges for a kiss (“First let me make peace with myself! My darling…”); the simpering fear when a woman takes offense (“Wait, wait, my joy, my ecstasy, forgive me. I apologize.”). It’s everywhere, and we missed it ― until Denis O’Hare showed us.
Like a virgin, O’Hare’s Vanya is always touching Yelena, and always with the vague hope that it will lead to … “something.” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Yelena, who doesn’t simply rebuff Vanya. A beautiful young woman married to a decrepit old man, she’s eager to test her sexual power. Gyllenhaal’s Yelena eggs Vanya on, hugging and touching and teasing him and nearly everybody else. But she imagines that the “line” in her head is clear and won’t be crossed. When Vanya inevitably and repeatedly trespasses beyond it, she’s furious. (No, not “furious.” Languishing and languid, she doesn’t have the energy to be furious. She’s annoyed.) Dr. Astrov also grows infatuated with Yelena, but, no sexual naif, he never mistakes this for love. He doesn’t fool himself about her virtues (“A lovely, silky little weasel … You need your victims!”); and Peter Sarsgaard’s Astrov never touches Yelena ― not until the moment when it may, in fact, lead to something.
All of this from the body language. The Classic Stage Company’s Uncle Vanya (until March 8, Austin Pendleton directing) is simply a remarkable production. We haven’t even mentioned the set, or, for that matter, the story. And we haven’t mentioned Mamie Gummer’s Sonya.
In Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s “Scenes From Country Life,” an urban couple arrive on a working estate and disrupt the old routines. Resentments stew. The “pretty one” becomes the focus of all attention. The setting is a labyrinthine house of “twenty-six enormous rooms,” surrounded by forests and fields both cultivated and fallow. All of this space, and everybody feels “suffocated.” This is hard to represent, but scenic designer Santo Loquasto does it brilliantly. The house is a scaffold; the spaces between steps on the staircase are empty; even the chairs and benches are constructed from vertical slats of wicker and wood. It’s as airy, as transparent and as confining as a prison cell.
The estate is run by Vanya, his niece Sonya, and their deputy “Waffles.” (Louis Zorich plays this tenacious but fragile man, always gracious and always condescended, with perfect charm.) The urban arrivals are Sonya’s father, the retired Professor Serebryakov, and his former student and current wife Yelena. (Vanya’s late sister was Serebryakov’s first wife and Sonya’s mother.) The other inhabitants are Vanya’s mother and their servant Marina, and the cast is completed by a frequent visitor: Astrov, the doctor who speaks for the trees. This is a tangled set of relationships, but there isn’t a false moment in the play. Chekhov’s view of his inmates is truly “panoptic.”
Every character in Uncle Vanya is a complex individual, and every actor in this production realizes and exemplifies this. Rather than making of Professor Serebryakov the usual cartoonish pseudo-intellectual, for example, George Morfogen plays him as a sick old man surrounded by young people impatient for his death. Tending to her husband brings Yelena to the verge of tears. (Dr. Chekhov carefully places “rheumatism” ― general discomfort rather than an actual condition ― at the center of Serebryakov’s complaints.) But, then again, the sensation of “a small, hot, angry rodent inside the joint, trying to burrow its way out” (to use one sufferer’s description of gout) is unspeakable. Producing competing sympathies is Chekhov’s particular genius.
As mentioned, O’Hare and Gyllenhaal are brilliant, and Sarsgaard is a fine Astrov, particularly in the drink-sodden second act. Sadly, he does indulge a few habitual tics. Some sentences are broken up by bizarre and randomly placed beats; others are run together as a single word. (Think Shatner.) All the while, gratuitous “y”‘s are prefixed to every third vowel. (Think Malkovich.) This is. All. Styupid-And-Annoying-He-Should-Drop-These-Habits-Immediately. Nonetheless, he’s significantly better here than he was as Trigorin in last year’s Seagull, so enormous credit must go to director Austin Pendleton. (His next job is directing Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré at the Pearl Theatre Company in May. We can’t wait.)
Finally, there’s Mamie Gummer’s Sonya. Gummer is no “plain” woman with “pretty hair,” but the humility of her performance makes her completely believable when she delivers lines that suggest the sadness of being one. (She had us a crying a few times before the official tear-jerker at the end.) There are many good performances in this Vanya ― very good ones ― but Mummer is a wonderful reminder of the difference between being good and being great. There’s nobody we’re more excited to see onstage again.