Letter: ‘Vanya’: To laugh or not to laugh?

Recently Rappahannock theatergoers were treated to a classic stage drama by the famous Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov, performed by some of the county’s best actors. Many might have predicted that ticket sales would be light to moderate given that the play, “Uncle Vanya,” has been reputed to be a “dark comedy” since the late 19th century and given the fact that it was written so long ago. Surprisingly, the house was near full for each performance.

For readers who didn’t see the play, you should know that RAAC Community Theater’s artistic director undertook a huge risk selecting this play. What could a playwright have to say that was written more than 100 years ago in pre-revolution czarist Russia that would be relevant to audiences today?

Well, it was recently performed at the Kennedy Center. We all know that Shakespeare lives a vibrant ongoing revival almost everywhere. So what risk? There is a “small consideration” of finding talented actors in a very small county. They are here, but who could be sure they’d sign on? Well, they did, and performed superbly judging by the standing ovations and post-play buzz afterward in the street when many stayed to chat with the actors and show their personal appreciation.

So, again, what risk? Well, if you were there, you know there were many lines delivered by the four main characters that were monologues – always a huge challenge to any actor and the source of much pre-play and rehearsal anxiety that viewers can hardly imagine. But they pulled it off brilliantly. As the director said later: “I had little to do with the success of the play. I knew it would work because I had the best actors. They make every play work.”

So why the question, “To laugh or not to laugh?” Chekov wrote “Uncle Vanya” at a time in his life when, apparently, he was quite depressed. Part of this depression had to do with his growing cynicism about the human condition: our doubt about ourselves; selfishness and arrogance; a growing sense of futility.

“Vanya” touches these “classic” themes and more. A great surprise to most of the audience was the relevance of this play to current events, including the destruction of our forests and environmental degradation. He saw it in his “county” as do we in ours and in the world around us. What would he have written if he saw the decay of our environment in so much of our world today?

So this is a “dark” play. Where do the laughs come? What I learned, and what the actors and director reflected on at a cast party afterwards, is a simple answer: “It’s the audience reaction each night.” We’ve heard Broadway stars who give the “same” performance night after night for weeks and months and longer who report that each night is different. Now I understand part of why that is true.

Each night was different in its “comedic” Gestalt. As the players started the dark drama set in a rural, Russian manor, the hunched, older nurse Nana Marina offers the wise visiting doctor and family friend some vodka, one of his few vices. He refuses graciously. Nana had already poured the small glass full. She nods, sits humbly and throws back the shot in one gulp – to her and the audience’s delighted laughter. “So,” we said, “there is some license to find the humor and to laugh.” Thus began the player-audience interaction.

You might surmise by the characterization “dark comedy” that we, the audience, are presented with a dilemma, albeit one brought about by suggestion and visceral-intellectual interplay. The “dark” part presents us with the discomfort and anxiety conveyed by the lines and the actors’ delivery and non-verbal expressions. So, we often laugh internally or titter or chuckle but mostly don’t laugh too loudly. Then there are those moments when a more loudly broadcast “ha-ha” erupts. Or should it be suppressed and downsized to a muffled titter? When should thinking override the gut response?

Well, one night the audience will allow more release, at times appropriate and at others inappropriate, depending on how some viewers see it. The suggestion that it is a dark play may dictate restraint. But viscerally we allow ourselves to override what is expected. And then there is the “contagion effect,” releasing more uninhibited laughter. So the laughter becomes more effusive and free-flowing.

This is what the players experienced: two nights, the same actors, delivering their lines as the night before, with the same “funny” opening (with other light moments rehearsed or spontaneously interspersed). One evening, more open laughter; on the other, there were nervous chuckles, titters and restraint. Then afterward, at the street gathering: one audience more upbeat, the other more subdued. Both appropriate results from the collective response of two audiences who experienced “darkness” and “humor” in different ways. Both demonstrating that “art” can and should be as unpredictable as the moment it is experienced. And both made memorable and cherished because the actors and the script evoked what it did for each of us that evening.

The cast of “Uncle Vanya” featured Andy Platt in the title role, Howard Coon (the Doctor), Patty Hardee (Nana Marina), Erin Switzer (Yelena), Lakota Coon (Sonya), Mike Mahoney (the Professor), Joyce Abell (Maria) and Steve Carroll (Telegin), and was directed by Peter Hornbostel.

Ralph Bates

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