With its first-rate cast, ready humor and delightful setting, Rebels and Misfits’ “Uncle Vanya” is a production that St. Louis theatergoers will cherish for years to come.
It’s not really “immersive theater,” as advertised; there’s little interaction between actors and members of the audience once the opening scene, a preshow tea party, is over. (The tiny sandwiches are particularly tasty.)
Nor is it “site-specific” theater. Nothing is done to amplify nor even to acknowledge the setting, a gorgeous midcentury house in Ladue that’s currently on the market.
In fact, this production of Chekhov’s 1899 masterpiece might just as well have been performed on (gasp!) a stage. But apparently that option did not appeal to director Kelly Hummert, who is also artistic director of Rebels and Misfits.
Well, fine. No matter what she had in mind, she has mounted a superb production of a truly modern drama, a production that makes sense, that emphasizes Chekhov’s wry humor and that gives two gifted actors, James Butz and Andrew Michael Neiman, rich roles that they dig into with brains and style.
In “Uncle Vanya,” a pompous professor (Peter Mayer) and his beautiful, young second wife, Yelena (Sophia Brown), have retired to his estate in the Russian countryside. Actually, the property belongs to his grown, unmarried daughter, Sonya (Francesca Ferrari). Sonya and Vanya (Neiman) — Sonya’s uncle, the first wife’s brother — have run the estate for years, subordinating themselves to the professor’s every whim.
Vanya is a smart man; so is the local doctor, Astrov (Butz). Both of them are in love with Yelena, who is of course beyond their reach — just as Astrov is scarcely aware of Sonya, pining with love for him.
Astrov, at least, tempts Yelena a little. Besides, he has other passions — notably, reforestation — to occupy him. In one of the play’s funniest, most touching scenes, Butz burns with urgency as he displays his maps of diminishing trees to Yelena alone, his eyes afire and his voice ripe with emotion.
But when the scene comes to a climax as he presses his lips to hers, there’s scarcely any change in mood. Astrov knows full well that he has no future — not with Yelena, not with replacing all the trees lost to the timber industry. Nevertheless, he acts on his passions. In this world, that probably makes him an optimist.
Vanya is another story. In one of the play’s early, most telling moments, Neiman wedges himself into a tiny space where two stone walls meet at a right angle. There could scarcely be a clearer explanation of how trapped Vanya feels.
Even in long speeches about the years he has wasted, and his fears that he will also waste his future, Neiman is simply elaborating on that initial, excruciating image. Not for nothing is he the title character.
All these tensions are clear to Vanya’s snooty mother (Suzanne Greenwald), the kindly housekeeper (Donna Weinsting) and the devoted groundskeeper (Kent Coffel). They come and go through the house just as we do, schlepping behind the principals from parlor to kitchen to office. A few pieces of old-fashioned furniture, plainly not of this house, tell us what room we’re in. On opening night, a persistent “beep” from the refrigerator supplied a comically anachronistic counterpoint to Sonya’s heartfelt conversation with Astrov.
Maybe a more old-fashioned house, or a clearly updated period, would have enhanced the production’s style. But for an intimate encounter with vivid characters, Hummert couldn’t have offered more. If you decide to take advantage of this production, come at 7 to enjoy the tea party. You rarely meet theatrical personae on such informal terms.