Adapting Chekhov for a local stage

 Bringing Russia to Maine
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 8, 2013

YANKEE VALUES IN A RUSSIAN PLAY Tensions around work and idleness are common. 

Anton Chekhov set his renowned drama Uncle Vanya in provincial late 19th-century Russia, where, on a remote estate, a family skirmishes and yearns. But the play’s central tribulations, involving land, longing, and work, translate engagingly to the same period in our own state. Kent Stephens has adapted Chekhov’s saga to rural Maine, on the banks of the Androscoggin, and he directs it as a Kent Stephens’ Stage Force production at the impressive new Star Theater, in Kittery.

The framework of Chekhov’s story remains the same: Laconic Uncle John-John (Brent Askari) and his plain, good-natured niece Sunny (Rebecca Rudolf) have long worked hard running the farm estate of Sunny’s aging professor father, Alexander St. Brockman (Stephens), while John’s intellectual mother (an imposing Carol Davenport) spends her days reading feminist tracts. When Professor Brockman moves back in with his beautiful, restless, much-younger wife Helena (Christine Penney), the house is soon hot and stifling with desires: Sunny quietly worships oblivious Michael Astroff (Andrew Fling), the family’s reluctant doctor and an impassioned conservationist, who has lately been hitting the bottle hard with John-John as they moon over idle Helena. The Professor, meanwhile, ails and complains. And so, despite being soothed by the hardily-accented help, Marnie (Mary Lou Bagley) and Waffles (Gordon Carlisle), the household languishes.

Stephens laces his adaptation with geographical particulars: Astroff tells of typhoid in the slums of Skowhegan mill workers; Marnie condemns John’s daytime drinking and late dinners as “Boston behavior.” The production places everyone in a rustic farmhouse drawn with gorgeous simplicity in Jerard-James Craven’s scenic design, with a graceful skeleton of wooden walls, beams, and windows on a raked stage. Above the house, upstage, a screen displays a progression of rural landscapes and skies (most effectively as storm clouds approach late one night). Amid the house’s angles and simple furniture, the actors move between beautifully composed tableaux; Stephens has a superb sense for the visual as he blocks the characters, placing them physically in complex systems of affinities and resentments.

And his cast is excellent. By turns comic and poignant individually, as a corps they are adept at showing how such fundamentally different people manage to co-exist and even bond. Askari tempers Uncle John-John’s flippancy with his rage and despair, giving him complexity and a fine arc, and as his niece, Rudolf has great sensitivity, making Sunny warm, guileless, and quietly noble in her love for Astroff. Fling’s disillusioned doctor makes a fun careless drunk, but is especially striking when he speaks of his passion, the preservation of the Androscoggin basin: That passion is what attracts the aimless Helena, who in Penney’s hands has a peevish ennui and a sad, sympathetic awareness of her own shallowness.

In light of the excellence of Vanya’s cast and basic production design, its few stylistic missteps are surprising: Between scenes, the lush nature-imagery video montage is attractive but jarring against the elegant sparseness of the set, and a medley of Leonard Cohen songs (though appropriate enough to the motifs of loneliness and the limits of love) adds more aesthetic confusion.

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