Theater Review: Gamm's 'Vanya' Speaks To Our Times

Jan 29, 2018

Two of Rhode Island’s leading theaters, Trinity Rep and the Gamm, have combined talents. The result of this joining of forces is a winner, all the way.

Sometimes a critic can groan just a little when he or she sees a huge Russian “masterpiece” on a theater’s schedule. Sure, I know, the Russian theaters created, in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, some golden works of art.

But, in my opinion, all too often these glorious winners have launched dry and desolate later 20th century productions. These have been filled with ponderous, over-done three hour salutes to the past. No one, it seemed, had the insight, much less the desire, to take a look at the play’s ability to remain crucial, and clear, showing a desire to speak to today.

Well, thank heavens for the new production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” now at the Gamm. It’s a powerful work of art, a look at the past that has much to say about today. Don’t miss this “Vanya,” if you can possibly help it.

What Trinity and Gamm have done is to bring no less than Trinity’s artistic leader, Curt Columbus, to direct the show. And, since it happens that Columbus also has translated the production from Russian to English, this get together is a first-rate decision.

With vibrancy and force – and humor - this production rambles through Chekhov’s picture of a spiraling family and friends with consistent power and insight. These folks–ranging from a doctor who’d really like to be doing something else, to blinky professors and a woman who has fallen into land but not much fun – consistently give the opportunity to see into their minds, and hearts.

The production is presented wonderfully by Michael McGarty’s set, filled as it is by wood and iron on several heights, all of which allow an athletic posture, and illuminated masterfully by Steve McLellan’s lighting design.

Under crisp leadership by Columbus, the cast is superb. They seem to float in with confidence and quiet desire. Take the work of Gamm veteran, Steve Kidd. He’s the doc who’d really rather be home planting trees, drinking vodka, and hoping that the beautiful, landowning woman would give him a break. Kidd’s performance shows that there are upset folks in every sphere, every century.

Then there’s Tony Estrella (the Gamm’s leader) who plays dear old Vanya to the hilt. If he’s whining over his past or blasting a great big pistol, he’s showing you a man without a center, and doing it with seeming effortlessness.

In fact that’s the case all the way through. From Richard Donelly’s shouting old man to Marianna Bassham’s divinely beautiful yet worried woman and Casey Seymour Kim’s overworked but ever-hopeful servant, the troupers make this Russian play work ever so well.

“Uncle Vanya” shows the time and trouble of 19th and early 20th century folk. But this superb cast, led by the quick and insightful leadership of Columbus, proves that “Uncle Vanya” can be about all people, all times.

“Uncle Vanya” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through February 18th. Bill Gale covers the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.