Everybody’s sleep patterns are disturbed in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (at Cutting Ball Theater through Oct. 21). Part of the problem is that Marína (Nancy Sans) the housekeeper constantly heats up the samovar to make pots of tea. But drinking too much caffeine, and shots of vodka, aren’t the only stimulants keeping the characters awake at night. They’re also suffering from recurring blasts of existential ennui. Sónya’s (Haley Bertelsen) Uncle Ványa (George Saulnier) is hopelessly in love with her stepmother Yeléna (Virginia M. Blanco). He fantasizes about her day and night but she won’t have him. Not only is she married to Sónya’s father, the famous academic Alexánder Serebriakóv (Doug Nolan), but she, and a despondent Sónya, also find the visiting doctor Ástrov (Adam Magill) magnetically appealing.
Ástrov is accomplished in all the fields of 19th-century manhood. He’s a man of science and healing, and he tends the forest he owns without any outside help, having worked on the estate for decades. But Ványa doesn’t own anything, nor does he have a career. And he remains sadly unloved and unmarried. As Sónya and Yeléna openly admire the doctor, he can only envy Ástrov from the other side of the living room — or drink himself into a depressive stupor. With a profusion of regret and unrequited love poisoning the oxygen, it’s no wonder that the friends and relations who’ve come to stay at Sónya’s estate all wander the hallways moaning deep into the night. When we arrive, we’re witnesses to Ványa’s midlife crisis. His anxiety ripples outward, infecting his niece, his brother-in-law Alexánder and a restless Yeléna.
Chekhov wouldn’t have described Ványa as a loser — the playwright feels compassion for him — but contemporary audiences may have less patience for his whingeing. To distract us from his inability to take action, the director Paige Rogers alters the play’s pacing and tone. First, there’s Fred Kinney’s scenic design. Of the recent productions I’ve seen there, his set, helped along by Ted Boyce-Smith’s moody blue lighting, has made the most of Cutting Ball’s modest space. The edges of the stage are lined with tall metal shelves that double as ladders. Each actor interacts differently with the set depending on the traits of the character they play. Sónya often hides behind it. Ványa and Ástrov climb up the steps to the rafters and then back down to earth. Ványa’s disapproving mother Mrs. Voinítsky (Miyoko Sakatani) settles into a corner of the set, observing the action in silence — when she’s not reading her Kindle.
When they climb on them, the cast members transform the ladders into a set of monkey bars. They stretch their limbs to work out nervous energy and to inspire anxiety in the audience should they slip or fall. Their movements act as a counterpoint to Ványa’s sense of stasis, in particular, but also generally energizes the dolorous undertones in the text. Microphones hanging down on retractable cords are less effective additions to reimagine or modernize the play. The actors will be in the middle of a scene when someone will grab one to amplify and thereby emphasize a few lines. It’s a novel idea that is also disruptive. Just when you’re starting to identify with Sónya’s yearning or Ványa’s despair, an actor will pull the mic down to deliver a monologue like a stand-up comedian. This gimmick doesn’t always ruin the flow but seldom adds anything to it. Actors climbing up and down and all around the set felt like enough of an update.
Even without the microphones, Rogers, who is ending her run as Cutting Ball’s artistic director, does leave room for the actors to express the inner lives of their characters. As Sónya, Bertelsen has, perhaps, the finest moment within the ensemble. In the living room, she finds Ástrov awake in the middle of the night. Sónya wants to declare her love but she also longs for him to do the same. She asks if he’s hungry, offering him some bread and cheese. They confide in each other about their unhappiness but neither speaks of love. When Ástrov eventually goes to bed, he leaves part of his half-eaten midnight snack behind. Alone in the room, Sónya picks up the bread and cheese and savors it. A private smile registers on Bertelsen’s face. She understands that this is as close as Sónya will ever get to tasting Ástrov’s lips.
Uncle Vanya, through Oct. 21, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., 415-525-1205 or cuttingball.com