There’s a little wooden one-room A-frame house tucked inside a building just below Canal Street this month, home to the dysfunctional family at the center of Annie Baker‘s updated version of Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya. With lucid writing and penetrating nuance, Baker has reinterpreted a towering historic work for contemporary life, bringing us ever closer to the harrowing existential crises through which the characters find themselves struggling. The principals of Uncle Vanya are confronted one by one with the realization that they have each lived a life misspent, whether in pursuit of the wrong goal or attached to the wrong person. A tone of quiet and enervating desperation runs through the evening, as Vanya and Yelena and Sonya and Astrov watch their worlds crumble with no choice but to muddle on.
Members of the audience are seated on risers lining all four walls of the room, providing a discomfortingly close view of the hostility that eventually explodes into a full-throated shouting match as the Professor proposes to solve the family’s financial problems by selling the land that Vanya has thrown his life into maintaining. As delicately directed by Sam Gold, who was also responsible for Baker’s breakout Off Broadway hit Circle Mirror Transformation in 2009, that roiling anger is marked less by episodic bursts of fury than by a gradually mounting tension and the exasperated resignation that pervades even the slightest interactions in the play. A cast of downtown theater’s brightest, including Reed Birney, Maria Dizzia, and Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Shannon, brings a light touch to their characters, offering a refreshing view of one of theater’s most suffocating ensembles. It’s a revelation how modern the issues at the heart of this late-19th-century play feel in this updated production, demonstrating that the distress of unfulfillment stings just as sharply in today’s age of rigorously enforced self-actualization as it did over two hundred years earlier.
Uncle Vanya runs through August 26 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street. Photography by Julieta Cervantes.