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Ali Kazmi, left, plays Astrov and Bahia Watson portrays Sonya in Uncle Vanya at Crow's Theatre.Dahlia Katz/Supplied

  • Title: Uncle Vanya
  • Written by: Anton Chekhov
  • Adapted by: Liisa Repo-Martell
  • Director: Chris Abraham
  • Actors: Carolyn Fe, dtaborah johnson, Ali Kazmi, Eric Peterson, Anand Rajaram, Tom Rooney, Shannon Taylor, Bahia Watson
  • Company: Crow’s Theatre
  • Venue: Streetcar Crowsnest
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Oct. 2, 2022

Critic’s Pick

Talk about your Great Resignation. For years, Ivan (Vanya) Voinitsky has been dutifully employed, running a country estate for his admired absent brother-in-law, an eminent professor. But now that the retired academic has moved onto the estate, turning its little world upside down, Vanya has become totally disillusioned with the man and his accomplishments.

Instead of working, Vanya has taken to hanging about the house, bitterly bemoaning his wasted life. That, and making a fool of himself over Yelena, the professor’s young second wife.

When at last his torments become unbearable, Vanya declares that he’s gone insane. “You’re not insane,” retorts Astrov, the family doctor. “You’re just pathetic, like the rest of us.”

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the spellbinding season opener at Crow’s Theatre, is one of the Russian writer’s great tragicomic plays about the pathos of the commonplace. His characters suffer from frustration, disappointment, boredom, the pangs of unrequited love and the ailments of old age. They’re so familiar that you laugh at their – to steal a Miriam Toews phrase – puny sorrows. And then, at some point, you realize you have tears in your eyes.

We’ve been waiting a long time for this production. After Crow’s gave us a revelatory interpretation of The Seagull in 2015, many of us were eager to see director Chris Abraham and his Toronto company tackle another Chekhov. The wait was worth it. Their Uncle Vanya boasts the striking performances of that earlier show, while fleshing out its skeletal design superbly. It’s essentially an immersive experience, staged in the round in Streetcar Crowsnest’s Guloien Theatre to make us feel as if we’re sitting inside a gloomy, decaying 19th-century Russian country house, complete with rain-fogged windows and dust motes in the air.

Vanya (Tom Rooney) isn’t the only one suffering there. The glamorous Yelena (Shannon Taylor) has also captured the heart of Dr. Astrov (Ali Kazmi), while Sonya (Bahia Watson), Vanya’s niece and co-worker, is no less infatuated with the devilishly handsome doctor. Yelena herself is attracted to him, but bound to her husband, the irritable, illness-plagued professor, in a May-December marriage she’s come to regret.

It’s Vanya’s despair, however, that gets out of control, leading to the play’s famous anticlimactic climax, where near-tragedy collapses into sad absurdity.

Rooney, reteaming with Abraham after their hit Cyrano de Bergerac at the Shaw Festival last spring, again proves – as my colleague J. Kelly Nestruck has observed – that he’s one of our funniest classical actors. His unmoored Vanya spews hilariously nasty sarcasm, like some sour comedian, only to suddenly behave like an embarrassing over-the-hill Romeo in front of Yelena. Spindly, dishevelled, he looks as though he’s barely keeping it together as he strides about aimlessly, or beats his balding head with a carpet slipper. Abraham’s only misjudgment in his otherwise astute direction is to give Rooney’s Vanya an unnecessary and incongruous fantasy sequence in which he dances a pas de deux with Taylor’s Yelena.

Where Vanya sucks the air out of a room, Kazmi’s Astrov fills it with vitality – even if the doctor, too, feels as though he’s frittering away his talents. When he isn’t self-medicating with vodka, he’s discoursing passionately on his hobby: replanting Russia’s rapidly disappearing forests. Kazmi is by turns dashingly dissolute and soberly sincere when he talks about protecting nature and the climate for future generations – speeches that, needless to say, resonate more today than ever.

Open this photo in gallery:

Tom Rooney, centre, reteams with director Chris Abraham after their hit Cyrano de Bergerac at the Shaw Festival last spring.Dahlia Katz/Supplied

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dtaborah johnson takes on the role of Maria.Dahlia Katz/Supplied

As Watson’s beguiled Sonya says to Astrov, “You’re like a whole other level of person!” It’s one of the funnier lines in Liisa Repo-Martell’s new, colloquial English adaptation, which reminded me of Annie Baker’s lively version, seen at the Shaw in 2016, and adds to the play’s contemporary feel.

Watson herself takes her acting to a new level – she’s delightful and moving as Sonya, especially when confessing her hopeless love for the doctor, going from giddy to crushingly sad in the space of a heartbeat. Astrov also brings Taylor’s tense, unhappy Yelena out of her hard shell and her brief moments of furtive intimacy with him make the theatre’s temperature shoot up several degrees.

Eric Peterson, who has long had a lock on cranky-old-man roles, expertly captures the professor’s comical pomposity and egotism, but also his pained self-awareness that his life is drawing to a close. The only person who can comfort him is the household’s elderly nanny, Marina, embodied with maternal warmth by Carolyn Fe.

Anand Rajaram’s long-haired, guitar-strumming Telegin, the family’s indigent hanger-on, plays pathetic in a minor key, desperately trying to convince himself and the others that they should be happy. Oblivious to everything but her own intellectual interests, a regal-looking dtaborah johnson, as Vanya’s feminist mother, occasionally sweeps through the house as though she were in a Paris salon.

And what a house it is. Julie Fox and Josh Quinlan’s set is assiduously detailed, lit with shafts of sunlight by Kimberly Purtell that show up the turf between the missing floorboards. Ming Wong’s costumes broadly suggest the late-19th century, while Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design fully embraces it with rich Romantic strains.

There may be some who hesitate at taking in a Russian play during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but that is the very reason to see it. As this show, with its diverse cast, reminds us, Chekhov transcends borders and national identities. He speaks to universal human experience and, in the voice of Astrov, to our fervent hope for a better future.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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