Review: “Uncle Vanya” in San Rafael

I don’t know anyone who attends theatre to reinforce their belief that life is simply a series of travails to be endured until the sweet release of death, but if you’re out there, have I got show for you. Birdbath Theatres is presenting Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a new adaptation by Jesse Brownstein, directed by David Abrams and playing at The Belrose through November 18.

Vanya (Rob Garcia) and his niece Sonya (Winona Wagner) manage the small estate of his late sister where they live with the family matriarch Mariya (Molly Noble), an old family nurse (Shirley Nilsen Hall), and a guitar-playing family friend (Andrew Byars). The estate’s meager proceeds have gone to support his late sister’s husband Professor Serebryakov (Ray Martin) and his new trophy wife Yelena (Claire Champommier).

A perpetually infirmed Serebryakov, after spending the summer at the estate, has come to a decision. He wishes to sell the estate to come up with enough money to purchase a nice retirement cottage in Finland for him and his wife. What of the others who live there? Well, those details can be worked out later. 

This infuriates Vanya, who’s already ticked off because Yelena, for whom he secretly pines, has shown affection for country doctor Astrov (Jesse Lumb), who has also caught the eye of the perpetually sad Sonya, who bemoans her looks. After two and a half hours, no one ends up with anyone, nothing is sold, and life drones on.

Andrew Byars, Claire Champommier, Rob Garcia

Abrams takes a minimalist approach to Chekhov’s look at the miserable lives of a turn-of-the-twentieth century Russian family. There’s no set of which to speak; the audience is seated against the theater walls and up on the stage; and the action (and I use that term loosely) often takes place at opposites sides of the small space, leading many in the audience to have to make a tennis match-like back-and-forth observation of the proceedings.

It’s a well-acted production, with Garcia’s Vonya a cauldron of self-loathing that, after finally boiling over, returns to a state of eternal simmering. Lumb’s Dr. Astrov is the least dreary of the lot who, while filled with remorse about his life decisions, provides a welcome spark to the often-lethargic proceedings.  

The play’s bleak tone is reinforced with some fine cello accompaniment by Diego Martinez Mendiola. Is there any sadder sound produced than that of the bowed chordophone?

Regret is the overriding theme of Uncle Vanya – the regret that comes when revisiting the decisions that define a life. I don’t regret the time I spent with the dispiriting Voinitsky family, but I don’t see the need to revisit them anytime soon.

‘Uncle Vanya’ runs Friday – Sunday through November 18 at the Belrose Theater, 1415 Fifth Ave., San Rafael. Friday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm. $20–$28. 415.426.0269. birdbaththeatres.com

Photos by Robin Jackson

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the Pacific Sun.

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