In Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Hunter Theater Project, Jay O. Sanders plays the title character as the kind of wisely figure you’d like to have as your own uncle. That is, until a brother-in-law announces he wants to sell the family estate that Vanya has managed for 35 years.
“Thanks to you,” Vanya bellows, “I destroyed, I annihilated the best years of my life!” He’s initially terrifying, then almost befuddled at the intensity of his own outburst. “What am I saying? I’m losing my mind.”
The character is a cautionary tale of a man on the cusp of old age and out of his own control. Yet Sanders still demonstrates restraint, what Chekov himself called “subtle expressions of feeling… expressed subtly in outward form.”
This intimate, exemplary and affordable production — tickets are $37, or $15 for students — features a new translation co-written by Richard Nelson, who also directed. In a stifling kitchen on the estate, Vanya falls for Elena (Celeste Arias), the young new wife of his brother-in-law. And she burns with feeling for Vanya’s old friend, the doctor Mikhail Astrov (Jesse Pennington).
The characters are mannered and self-conscious, yet nature is always pounding at the door.
Elena mourns, “How are we going to live here through the winter?” Astrov complains that the destruction of forests surrounding the estate is “the picture of a gradual and unquestionable degeneration,” and the implication is that that degeneration is working its way toward the kitchen. This Vanya, done in the round on a simple set by Jason Ardizzone-West, feels insular, and the actors are forever entering and exiting in the midst of conversations, promising that their existential malaise continues even out of our sight.
Nelson’s brilliant adaptation is the first production of Hunter College’s new approach to not-for-profit theater. Let’s hope it’s a sign of what’s to come. Uncle Vanya runs through Oct. 28 at the Frederick Loewe Theatre.