There's a whole lot of ennui and disappointment for the characters in Anton Chekhov's dramedy "Uncle Vanya," which Mountain View's Pear Theatre is currently presenting in a brand-new English translation by Dave Sikula.
Ivan "Vanya" Voinitsky (Stephen Muterspaugh), the titular uncle, is a depressed 47-year-old stuck managing his brother-in-law's rural Russian estate. He's joined there by his dutiful niece, Sonya (April Culver), his elderly mother, Maria (Judith Miller), nurse/housekeeper Marina (Carolyn Ford Compton), and "Waffles" (Wes Gabrillo), an impoverished family friend. Mikhail Astrov (Jeffrey Bracco), the country doctor and longtime pal, is also a frequent visitor.
At play's start, everyone's hot and bothered over the overbearing presence of the aforementioned brother-in-law, retired professor Serebryakov (Steve Lambert), and his much-younger second wife, Yelena (Monique Hafen).
Vanya's spent 25 years slaving away on the country estate to support the professor's academic career in the city. He once worshiped the man and sacrificed his own dreams for the sake of his idol (and the professor's late wife, Vanya's beloved sister). Now middle-aged and feeling like he's missed out on the prime of his life, he's bitterly resentful, accusing the professor of achieving nothing after many years of study, massively disillusioned about his former mentor.
Sultry Yelena is bored, unhappy and beautiful, moping around the house. Vanya complains about her laziness but is also hopelessly in love with her, an affection she does not share.
Virtuous Sonya pines for Astrov, whom she sees as nobler and more interesting than anyone else in her world. He's a (depressed, of course) vegetarian and environmentalist, delivering passionate speeches about the degradation of Russia's forests and the disappearance of birds. He says he's overworked and is prone to drinking away his woes. And, alas for poor Sonya, who constantly describes herself as "plain," the doctor, too, only has eyes for Yelena. Those feelings are actually mutual, but Yelena is largely unable or unwilling to act on them except through furtive glances and subtle flirtation.
The professor, who largely exists in his own world of books and papers, is miserable too because of gout, rheumatism and general old age. And that about wraps up the plot, as it were. No character really develops or learns much (apart, perhaps, from Sonya's loss of hope). They're unhappy folk expressing their unhappiness, extensively.
Over the course of the play's 2.5 hours, the characters brood, insult and shout at one another, complain long-windedly about the unfairness of their situations and find occasional moments of tenderness and humor.
It's tempting to dismiss the characters as whiny. Pathetic Vanya, for instance, frequently bemoans the fact that he hasn't made anything of his life, that with his intellect and passion he could have really been someone, but where's the evidence?
However, though it was published in 1897 -- during the last gasps of the Russian Czarist empire, with revolution just a few decades away -- Chekhov's characters are relatable and sympathetic to anyone who's ever felt crushing disappointment or stuck in life. (And hasn't everyone, to some degree?) And Muterspaugh's buffoonish Vanya is loveable even when on a midlife-crisis-induced murderous rampage.
Who can blame Sonya and Yelena for being attracted to Astrov -- whom Bracco plays with easygoing, gentle charm -- with his outrage at the state of the countryside and the destructiveness of the human impact on the landscape? Culver's Sonya is sweet and innocent; when she describes Astrov's philosophy, her whole being seems to light up. On the other hand, Culver sometimes exaggerates her lines, getting unnecessarily shouty for the intimate Pear setting.
Hafen is appealing as Yelena, whose elegant, silky gowns set her apart as a cultured urban woman of leisure, out of place among the country dwellers. She and Bracco have a nice bit of chemistry in a scene in which, as he explains a set of drawings, her feelings for him are made silently clear by her facial expression and her fingers, which creep tentatively close to his hand, then shy away.
The new Pear Theatre allows for a variety of staging and seating layouts, and this one is set up almost like a basketball court, with audience members seated on either side of the wooden floor and the action taking place in between. Scenic and prop design by Janny Cote and Ting Na Wang, respectively, are eye-catching: a tree and swing; ghostly hanging windows at the other end; a well-used piano.
Sikula's version of Chekhov's script, though, often comes across as clunky and unnatural, with characters often repeating themselves and droning on without much happening. It makes for somewhat a somewhat tedious audience experience. When a character again mentions being bored, I was inclined to agree.
I know "Uncle Vanya" is considered an important piece of drama but, despite the likeable cast, this production didn't quite make me understand why. Perhaps I simply didn't get it. Or, to paraphrase Astrov, there's nothing to understand -- I'm just not that interested.
What: "Uncle Vanya," presented by Pear Theatre
When: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. through March 13.
Where: 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View
Info: Visit The Pear.