By Lynn Venhaus
Ah, existential angst. Few acting roles are as consequential as the ones in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and few casts are up to the stimulating challenge like the outstanding ensemble is at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Expert craftsmen present deeply felt and moving performances, as they peel off the many layers of Chekhov’s tortured characters like they are giving a master class in rejuvenating a classic 19th century work.
To portray how a family’s ordinary life on a rural estate is disrupted by a self-centered relative and his alluring younger second wife one summer, each performer shades the subtext, making sure the melancholy is perceived and yet, displaying glimmers of joy.
Smooth, insightful direction by Annamaria Pileggi makes every corner of The Gaslight Theatre’s intimate black box crackle with tension and melodrama as messy family entanglements unfold.
Greg Johnston makes the vain retired university professor Aleksandr Vladimirovich Serebryakov thoroughly detestable. He has lived in the city for years on the earnings of his late first wife’s rural estate. You can understand his brother-in-law Vanya’s resentment and how his faithful wife Yelena has fallen out of love with this irritable, demanding man.
As the beautiful Yelena, Jennelle Gilreath Owens makes her misery palpable and her torment realistic over two other men professing their love, as she has beguiled them with regal bearing, and intelligence.
As lovesick Vanya, aka Ivan Petrovich Voynitsky, John Pierson gives one of his finest, most explosive performances – and I didn’t think he could top “Blackbird” and “Annapurna,” but he burns bright as an agitated powder keg of conflicting emotions and seethes, consumed by grudges, and fumes, because of the rejections and his many regrets. It’s also a surprisingly physical part, too.
Grumbling Vanya and his devoted niece Sonya have kept the crumbling estate going, all in service to the professor, and he is hopping mad at giving his life to such a thankless role. His sister, first wife, is Sonya’s mother and this was her estate.
In a devastating performance, Bryn McLaughlin is heartbreaking as beleaguered Sonya, written as “plain” but kind, and wise beyond her years. She is in love with the visiting doctor, Mikhail Astrov, who only has eyes for Yelena, and endures countless agony as a woman without any prospects for marriage. McLaughlin, a young actress fairly new to St. Louis, breaks through in this memorable role.
Our empathy for Sonya is strong. As the rock of the family, she clings to her idealism as well as her practical nature, still hopeful and understanding of her circumstances. She soothes her malcontent uncle, even though she is deserving of happiness too.
Michael James Reed is commanding as the visiting country doctor Mikhail Lvovich Astrov, glum yet charismatic. His provincial existence isn’t fulfilling, and neither is his medical work, although he takes it very seriously.
He is clueless about Sonya’s unrequited love, which causes her hard-to-bear sorrow. She has poured her heart out to her stepmother, not realizing the sparks between her and the good, but hard-drinking, doctor. He is drawn to spend more time there and things get topsy-turvy.
In supporting roles, Jan Meyer is Maria Vasilyevna Voynitskaya, Vanya’s out-of-touch mother; Eleanor Mullin is caring, pragmatic housekeeper Marina Timofeevna; and Michael Musgrave-Perkins is good-natured Ilya Ilych Telegin, a poor landowner, who is nicknamed “Waffles” for his pockmarked skin, and lives on the estate as a dependent. His music added a pleasant cultural note.
Patrick Huber’s set design is visually appealing and practical for country living in a sweltering summer. Teresa Doggett’s costume design outfits each character well, especially Owens. One quibble — McLaughlin’s wig is too large and heavy for her delicate face.
This version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” was adapted by contemporary playwright Neil LaBute in 2020, and he has retained the passion and intensity without chopping much, to my recollection. Any changes he made aren’t jarring or noticeable, and the length is still three hours.
This Chekhov work has been adapted many times on stage and in film, and inspired other works. The fact that its chaos is relatable today – lonely people living in isolation, family hierarchies, and even the doctor’s talk of ecological problems and destruction of forests — is remarkable.
Vanya is one of Chekhov’s four classics, written in 1897 and directed by Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre two years later, following “The Seagull” and before “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard.”
Because of his penchant for realism, Chekhov is credited with establishing modernism in theater, and Stanislavski took the ‘between the lines’ concept one further with the “Method” acting blueprint for many performers.
His influences remain, and it’s refreshing to see how much we can relate to his bleak visions on lost youth, disappointments and finding our purpose – but with some satiric touches, too. For a classic to work in the 21st century, it must have a vitality and teach us anew.
In 2016, St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented “Ivanov,” which was a tall order with 14 people in the cast but was an effective, smart work with stellar performances.
The skill shown throughout this ambitious work is exceptional, and another crown jewel for St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
The St. Louis Actors’ Studio presents Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” from Feb. 17 to March 5, with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, with Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Feb. 23 and March 2, at the Gaslight Theatre, at 360 North Boyle in the Central West End. Tickets through Ticketmaster or show up at the box office half-hour before curtain. For more information: www.stlas.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.