The opening plays at this year’s festival offer Toronto visitors two contrasting views of life in a rural backwater.
Even die-hard Torontonians can occasionally succumb to the allure of the rural idyll—especially when taking a springtime trip down to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see the venerable Shaw Festival. As soon as you leave the traffic-clogged QEW and venture into the peaceful vineyards of Niagara wine country, you begin to imagine how lovely it might be to while away your days here, growing grapes, sipping wine, and popping into that quaint little historic town now and then to see a show.
Appropriately enough, this year’s Shaw Festival has just opened with two plays that deal in the bucolic. One is that old favourite of community theatre companies, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with its fond picture of small-town America at the beginning of the 20th century. The other is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a work that serves to remind us city-dwellers that country living can also be stultifying.
“Stultifying,” however, is the last word you’ll think of while watching Jackie Maxwell’s immensely engaging production of this Chekhov masterpiece. It had this critic sitting on the edge of his seat, as if discovering the play for the first time. That’s thanks both to a delightfully colloquial new adaptation by young American playwright Annie Baker and a marvellous cast directed with keen insight by Maxwell. This is the director’s 14th and final season helming the Shaw, and one of her last two productions as its artistic director (the other, opening in July, is the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd). Yet there’s no sign of weariness; this show finds her at the top of her game. It’s also emblematic of what she has brought to the festival: approaching classic Shavian-era theatre with a modern view and promoting the work of female artists.
Add to the latter Baker, who won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for The Flick, a three-hour play about three overqualified young ushers in a decrepit movie theatre who don’t do much more than clean up the spilled snacks between screenings. Clearly she’s on the same wavelength as Chekhov, whose Uncle Vanya may be the greatest play ever about ennui, disappointment, and dull routine work.
Baker’s version of Vanya actually came just before The Flick, having premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, in a modern-dress production at Soho Rep. Maxwell’s Shaw staging opts for a more traditional look, with a design by Sue LePage that puts us visually in late-19th-century Russia. The text and delivery, on the other hand, sound like early-21st-century North America—casual, funny, familiar. Patrick McManus’s disgusted Astrov refers to people as “creeps.” Neil Barclay’s lovelorn Vanya, watching the beautiful Yelena (Moya O’Connell) flee from him, imitates a sportscaster: “Aaaaand…she’s gone.”
It has the effect of making you look past the play’s specifics—life on a country estate in Tsarist Russia—and see its characters as if they were living today. For a comedy about bored, listless people, it’s intensely alive.
The story is simple: Vanya and his niece Sonya (Marla McLean) have been running the estate for her absent father, the distinguished professor Serebryakov (David Schurmann). But now the professor has retired and moved in, along with his young second wife, Yelena. The family’s old nursemaid, Marina (Sharry Flett), complains that the academic’s odd hours have upset the household schedule; even more disruptive, however, is the powerful presence of Yelena, who has both Vanya and the local doctor, Astrov, head over heels. That’s tough on Sonya, who has been carrying a torch for Astrov for years.
Vanya, who has spent his life supporting the professor, has become bitterly disillusioned with him and full of regret for what he sees as his own wasted opportunities. But then, almost nobody in the play is happy—even when, like the visiting neighbour Telegin (Peter Millard), they claim to be. The old professor curses his ailing body; the proto-environmentalist Astrov grieves over the rape of the country’s forests; a restless Yelena has come to see her marriage as a mistake and is paralyzed with boredom.
Vanya’s hatred for the professor—and himself—finally boils over in that famous climax that’s also an anti-climax: a bungling attempt at murder that leaves Vanya feeling like an even bigger fool. And the worst part of being a fool is being aware that you are. When Barclay’s portly, dishevelled Vanya cries out in despair that he could have been “a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky!” he immediately realizes how stupid that sounds (and how unintentionally revealing it is) and you feel embarrassed for him, too.
Indeed, Barclay lets us palpably experience all of the man’s feelings—his irritation, his pathetic infatuation with Yelena, his regret. It’s as if the actor has wired us to Vanya’s nerve endings. But Maxwell gets sensitive and vividly distinct performances from her other cast members, as well. You smile at the bright-eyed ardour in McLean’s face when Sonya has her back turned to Astrov. You wince for O’Connell’s Yelena when one of her rare moments of youthful enthusiasm is shot down by her aging husband.
The two actresses are irresistibly giddy in their bonding scene over a shared glass of wine; and we share their fascination with McManus’s devil-may-care Astrov, the idealist-turned-pessimist trying vainly to drown his finer feelings with vodka. We even feel some pity for Schurmann’s pompous professor, whom Vanya may envy but who has been reduced to a cranky old invalid facing both the ravages of time and the indifference of posterity.
Chekhov’s subtitle for Uncle Vanya is simply “Scenes from Country Life” and Maxwell continually reminds us of that, with short stretches in which people don’t do much more than go about their routines or kill time. Marina (a sweetly eccentric Flett) searches for some stray chickens; Vanya’s old mother (Donna Belleville), a radical feminist, pores over her pamphlets; Millard’s Telegin strums a guitar. In the background, a watchman (James Daly) passes, tapping a pair of sticks at intervals. You can almost hear time ticking away.
Time can pass slowly in a rural backwater, but in retrospect it’s as fleeting there as anywhere else. Our Town asks us to appreciate every minute, to stop and smell the roses—or, in this case, the heliotropes in Mrs. Gibbs’s moonlit garden. And you can easily imagine their scent in director Molly Smith’s affectionate revival of Wilder’s American classic about life in fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
With its bare-stage aesthetic—great-granddaddy to Factory Theatre’s recent “naked” season—and its life-as-theatre conceit—with a Stage Manager as omniscient narrator—Our Town can feel familiar and hokey even if you’ve never seen it before. And a story full of white folks and folksy wisdom may seem a world away from the America of today. But that doesn’t invalidate its wisdom or diminish the poignancy of its characters, whose fates are (mostly) foretold by the Stage Manager even as we first meet them.
The SM is embodied here by the mighty Benedict Campbell, who brings a Shakespearean gravity to the role, while still capturing its wry humour. His golden voice is complemented by James Smith’s rich, sweet musical score. The two Patricks, Galligan and McManus, are Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb, the town’s GP and newspaper editor, respectively, while Catherine McGregor and Jenny L. Wright play their wives. All four are excellent. In a suitable bit of casting, real-life couple (and co-stars of last season’s family hit, Peter and the Starcatcher) Kate Besworth and Charlie Gallant portray Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the neighbours and schoolmates destined for love, marriage, and tragedy. Gallant has no shortage of boyish charm, while Besworth is a sparky, almost comical Emily (her New England accent is broader than anyone else’s). That doesn’t detract from her memorable final epiphany about the wonder of life on Earth. It will still have you leaving the theatre determined to spend more time smelling the heliotropes.