Watch director Richard Nelson’s much lauded production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” here online. It was broadcast last night on WNET Channel 13 as part of the TV series Theater Close Up, which records Off-Broadway productions. It will remain online for the next three years.
When Nelson’s production of Chekhov’s play was presented on stage a year ago at Hunter College, one critic wrote in praise of Jay O. Sanders in the title role that his “acting contains a level of detail that simply shouldn’t be visible without a camera to magnify it.”
Now that camera exists, and even advocates for live theater will surely admit it enhances a production that, for better or for worse, offers some of the signature touches of the director. Nelson is best-known for two understated trilogies that he both wrote and directed – The Apple Family plays and The Gabriels (the latter of which is also available online as part of Theater Close Up)
Working with the Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Nelson produced a new English-language version of “Uncle Vanya” that streamlines the story, even eliminating one of the characters (“Waffles” Telegin, who normally provides much of the comedy in the play.) Although there remains a (very fine) seven-member cast, the adaptation winds up focusing on the title character, a man who feels he has wasted his life foolishly worshipping , and sacrificing for, Alexander (Jon DeVries), a professor who married Vanya’s sister, now deceased, and lives off the income of her rural estate. Vanya and his niece Sonya (Yvonne Woods) have struggled to manage that estate for him. Now the professor has brought home a new, beautiful young wife Elena (Celeste Arias), and first announces plans to move permanently…and then to sell the property. Elena becomes the object of longing and frustration both for Vanya and for Astrov (Jesse Pennington), the country doctor…whom Sonya secretly desires. All of these passions – envy, lust, regret – are largely played down in keeping with Nelson’s aesthetic, which, in the name of naturalism, encourages the actors to underplay their scenes to the point of occasional inaudibility. That problem is solved because of the camera (and the option of Closed Captioning.) But Sanders, as you’ll see, breaks through with a performance that is both nuanced and powerful, and worth watching in close up.