The main reason why Intiman's Uncle Vanya is a success is its lightness. The language of the new adaptation, by Craig Lucas—who also adapted Chekhov's Three Sisters for Intiman two years ago—and the direction of the play, by Bartlett Sher, never let the heavy themes of aging, guilt, resentment, regret, illness, and rural loneliness sink the production into the lower depths of tragedy. True, not one of the characters is happy at the end, not one gets what he wants; all finish where they began, desiring things they will never attain, moving toward death with little or no hope of actual satisfaction. And still this is a comedy! And Vanya is nothing but a comic character.
We must remember this: The climax of The Wood Demon, the play which Chekhov transformed into Uncle Vanya, is a suicide; the climax of Uncle Vanya is a botched murder. With two shots, at very close range, Vanya fails to gun down the man he most loathes. Had Vanya killed his adversary, or killed himself, we would have to take all of the play's miserable themes—boredom, disenchantment, sexual frustration—seriously.
Also worth remembering: Uncle Vanya happens during summer, a time of bright light, fresh air, and laughter. The story begins in spring with the arrival of a famous professor and his beautiful wife at Vanya's house. Vanya (Mark Nelson) lives with the professor's daughter, Sonya (Kristin Flanders). Sonya's dead mother is Vanya's sister, and Vanya is in love with the woman who replaced his sister's position in the family, Elena (Samantha Mathis). Elena, a character with a long career in Russian literature (the icy, ambitious, worldly woman), is played as she should be played—not really there, not really here, not even really the "belle dame sans merci" (Elena, we learn, has some secret warmth), and not obviously funny. Vanya is also played as he should be played—obviously funny, obviously sad, obviously a mess of man. And his moment of supreme impotence, his inability to kill the object of his outrage (the professor), is, as it should be, the most hilarious moment of the play.
The center of Uncle Vanya, however, is not Vanya but a doctor, Astrov—played just a touch too seriously by Tim Hopper. A vegetarian and environmentalist who has great faith in the power of human reason, Astrov is, on the surface, that type of man who, like Elena, can be found in almost every work of Russian literature from Pushkin to Sasha Sokolov: "the new man." The doctor is the future of Russia living in its rural and backward present. Chekhov could easily have made this central character (based on himself) a hero with powerful feelings and a powerful message for the people. But he is not a hero; he is a drunk. Worse still, Astrov is a second-rate physician who blames his surroundings, rather than himself, for the fact that he will never amount to anything more than a country doctor.
The lightness of the social themes in Uncle Vanya take the play away from the usual subject of Golden Age (and Silver Age) Russian literature—namely, the search for national identity between the cultural points of East and West and an expression of the condition of the Russian soul in a rational and democratic age.
This something else is what Craig Lucas's new adaptation reveals, this other meaning that we get when personal themes (love, loss, resentment) and national themes (industry, deforestation, feminism) are lifted into the summer air: This other thing is age. Uncle Vanya is about people who are aging, people who are about to be old. No matter how much they learn, how much they drink, or whom they marry, they will become old. The peak of impotence is to try to kill somebody—to stop the process of aging—and to fail. What works against all of the characters is age; what they must go thorough is age; what will undo them is age; what makes all their tragedies into comedies is age.
Near the end of the play, Astrov is waiting to leave Vanya's house. He has lots of time on his hands. There's a map of Africa in the room. The map is there for no particular reason. Astrov notices it and says the only thing that's on his mind: "Africa must be a hot place." We all laugh. We laugh not with our bellies but with our cheeks. Life might be "nasty, brutish, and short," but because so much of it is so much nonsense, it's also very funny.