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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Fair
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Uncle Vanya: All is lost
Uncle Vanya works wonders with despair
The play meditates on life's disappointments.
The play meditates on life's disappointments.

There's a very satisfying production of Uncle Vanya showing at the Bartell's Evjue Stage. Anton Chekhov's Vanya is director Tony Trout's favorite because "It's a Chekhov play where something really happens." Like those pistol shots that interrupt Chekhovian soliloquies about life's missed opportunities.

Trout chose David Mamet's adaptation for Strollers Theatre's production of this 19th-century classic. Mamet is a contemporary playwright known for staccato dialogue peppered with expletives. Think Glengarry Glen Ross. It's a choice Trout defends: "Mamet doesn't actually change the meaning of any of the lines in Uncle Vanya, but he breaks through the stiff, flowery language of previous translations from the Russian."

No expletives, but Mamet's reworking of the dialogue is vivid and imaginative. Uncle Vanya's characters immediately come to life, and the tensions between them swiftly propel a plot that has more to do with human nature than with issues or actual events.

Trout has assembled a stellar cast, with Sam White as the middle-aged Vanya, hopelessly in love with Yelena (Ainsley Rowe), the coolly beautiful young wife of his pompous, ailing brother-in-law, Alexandr Serebryakov (Carl Cawthorne). It's a rich treat to watch White and Cawthorne, two such practiced professionals: White as he devours Yelena with his eyes and Cawthorne playing for her pity with only a flicker of shame.

Rowe is an evasive Yelena, toying with infatuated doctor Astrov - or perhaps not? Clearly, she hardly knows herself. Colin Woolston gives a brilliantly detailed performance as Astrov, an attractive, intelligent man who keeps a glass of vodka between himself and his dead dreams. He, in turn, is indifferent to the love of innocent little Sonya, intensely affecting as played by Lauren Peterson.

Chekhov's concern with social change and the fate of the land are familiar themes in Uncle Vanya. Ostensibly the proposed sale of the family's country estate provokes the pistol shots - the "something" that happens - but the emotional heart of the play is human despair over life's disappointments.

Vanya's capable minor characters are a sort of chorus: Joan Capelle as Marina, the eternal Russian peasant; Paul Armstrong as Telegin; and Terry Kiss Frank as Vanya's bemused old mother.

There were times during this four-act play when I wished it had been staged upstairs at the Drury. Hard to tell if it was a blocking problem or all that Victorian furniture.

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