Theater review: A recharged ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Kennedy Center

As shattered Uncle Vanya, Richard Roxburgh isn’t merely a shell of a man. He’s a shell of a shell, a quaking, sobbing wreck. Racked ever more violently by the realization that the professor for whom he has slaved is an intellectual sham and the woman he loves is for­ever out of reach, this tortured Vanya comes across as the active ingredient in utter despair.

“For 25 years, he’s added nothing to nothing!” he wails bitterly about his adversary, as if suddenly understanding that his life adds up to the same sum. Roxburgh’s desolation is so authentically articulated that you may sense you’re feeling the totality of Vanya’s pain for the first time. It’s a startling portrayal, emblematic of the seismic emotions of the intoxicating, go-for-broke “Uncle Vanya” that comes from Down Under courtesy of Cate Blanchett and her Sydney Theatre Company.

All your suppositions about Chekhov’s soulful gentility fly out the doors of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with this tornadic rendering of a country estate consuming itself in the misery of missed opportunities. Who says torpor isn’t a dynamic noun? In director Tamas Ascher’s inspired conception, even the bugs we hear whirring around the inhabitants’ faces are calculated to drive up the harassment index, the sense that the household is being driven to distraction by forces minuscule and monumental.

Ascher, a Hungarian, moves the tragicomedy up in time, from Chekhov’s czarist Russia, circa 1899, to the Soviet era, say around 1955. In the context of a spreading totalitarian malaise, the transposition — aided immensely by Andrew Upton’s punchy translation — works terrifically. Our familiarity with reflections on the oppressiveness of the Soviet era turns this stifling landscape into apt metaphor. So when the magnetic doctor, Astrov, played to beguiling, vodka-soaked perfection by Hugo Weaving, talks of a brighter future for generations yet unborn, we intuit even more profoundly than usual that it’s a future he doesn’t believe in.

The period updating is packaged grandly by set designer Zsolt Khell: The manse of ghastly professorial prig Serebryakov (John Bell) and his younger second wife Yelena (Blanchett) is a shabby husk, with dirty walls and spartan furniture — the kind of place that looks as if it might long ago have been ransacked and stripped bare by emboldened members of the proletariat. It’s a place in which grudges naturally marinate. Vanya, the brother of Serebryakov’s late first wife, resentfully runs the estate with the professor’s daughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney) while the older man lives the life of an esteemed academic, accompanied by the beautiful Yelena, whom Vanya not-so-secretly adores.

The Sydney company, run jointly by Blanchett and Upton, came to town two years ago with an astonishing version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was anchored by the actress. In its way, this emotionally in-touch “Uncle Vanya,” buoyed by its entire cast, is just as extraordinary.

Chekhov’s gift for illuminating the essence of each of his characters’ poignant, comic struggles is magnified in Ascher’s treatment. The scenes crackle with sponta­neity, and as a result, you often find yourself laughing at bits of behavior because you recognize them as both theatrically inventive and true. Are there not occasions in everyday life when a room rears up in awkward silence? This “Vanya” is filled with stunned moments emptied of conversation: Words frequently fail these unhappy people, which is perhaps why the scenes fueled by drink work particularly well here. Vodka really is the magic elixir of Russian ennui.

No time is this more delightfully apparent than in a surprising reconciliation scene between Blanchett’s Yelena and McElhinney’s Sonya. Their fractious standoff, forged out of plain-Jane Son­ya’s unrequited feelings for Astrov and her jealousy of Yelena, melts away after a few naughty shots, and soon they’re on the floor, mischievously, hilariously. McElhinney manages to convey both the earthiness of Sonya — she seems completely the toughened young woman of the soil — and her readiness to yield to childish fancies. Her default posture in the house is perching on a little girl’s chair, in the embrace of the old nanny, Marina (a fine Jacki Weaver).

Blanchett’s high-strung, drop-dead-gorgeous Yelena is the yin to McElhinney’s yang; costume designer Gyorgi Szakacs pours her into form-fitting red dresses and striking cream ensembles, as if all the proceeds from the working estate went into her closets. Sexually self-conscious, romantically malnourished and understandably restless, Blanchett’s captivating Yelena walks the Earth as a creature hypersensitive to touch. Beseeched by the snarling, elderly Serebryakov for a crumb of affection, this Yelena grudgingly complies, and the way in which Blanchett seems to prepare herself for this ordeal recalls the manner in which contestants steeled themselves to swallow caterpillars on “Fear Factor.”

The passionate attraction of Yelena to Astrov is just as palpable, and when at last she lets down her guard, the force unleashed is — like so much that occurs in this tortured, rural powder keg — concussive. The electrical charge is held all the way through to the play’s waning moments, when Son­ya tries, for what may be the 1,000th time, to give Vanya a rationale for going on.

On the basis of this “Vanya,” no one should ever again try to convince you that Chekhov is a delicate flower. As Ascher shows us in his transformative production, the playwright’s pen could contain dynamite.

Uncle Vanya

by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Andrew Upton and Tamas Ascher. Directed by Ascher. Sets, Zsolt Khell; costumes, Gyorgyi Szakacs; lighting, Nick Schlieper; composer and sound designer, Paul Charlier; dramaturge, Anna Lengyel; voice and text coach, Charmian Gradwell. With Anthony Phelan, Andrew Tighe, John Bell. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Aug. 27 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600 .

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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