Duke Theatre Studies’ Uncle Vanya – Everyday Heartbreak with Style


We are thrilled to welcome a new guest correspondent to the pages of the Clarion Content. Ginna Purrington holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction writing from the University of Alaska in Anchorage and a BA in English from Duke University. She was a staff member of the University of Alaska Writing Center, where she was an instructor for the course Introduction to College Writing.

This week she caught Duke Theatre Studies’ production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

dress rehearsal for Uncle Vanya


Duke Theatre Studies’ Uncle Vanya – Everyday Heartbreak with Style

by: Ginna Purrington

“Black box? What’s that?”

My friend and I were waiting in line for Thursday’s opening night performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, playing at Duke’s Schaefer Theatre.

“In a black box theatre, there may not be a backstage, or much of a set,” I said. “Because the traditional separation between audience and actors is often taken away, anything can happen.”

dress rehearsal for Uncle Vanya


What we saw as we took our seats might just as easily have taken place backstage as in front of us. A stage manager greeted students who wandered in and turned out to be players. They fiddled with objects, mounted the stage and shortly moved into character through exercises of voice, dance, and costume. What is the separation between the play, they seemed to ask, and real life?

“There are a million ways to enter the play of Uncle Vanya,” writes Dramaturg Jules Odendahl-James, in the extensive program notes for this performance. We saw players enter and exit Uncle Vanya before our eyes – players who were not currently acting sat onstage watching the production – not as audience, but performing as rapt students, copies of this recent adaptation’s script in hand. Not only are the players onstage, but many of the main roles are doubled, with two interweaving casts taking turns.

As for my friend and me, we entered the play in our mid-thirties, evaluating what our lives have been and will be in the future, what keeps us each stuck in our own particular eddies of experience. Both of us, incidentally, were in the same mental space as many of the characters in Uncle Vanya.

Briefly: an elderly professor and his young second wife retire from the city to his late first wife’s estate that has supported them. Their city lifestyle changes the rhythms of the estate, affecting its residents – the professor’s daughter from his first marriage and his brother in law (Vanya), who have managed the estate, an old nurse and retired farmer, and the professor’s mother in law. In addition, a country doctor visits more and more, both to address the professor’s maladies and engage in conversation with the professor’s lovely wife. It’s one of the two classic stories: a stranger comes to town, and suddenly, the town’s everyday is thrown into relief. Everything must reevaluate itself.

As much as the play runs on general themes, its specificity appeals: each character has his or her own particular sadness that illuminates their actions once revealed – the belle of the estate sees herself as boring, and a minor character. The professor’s daughter is industrious and kind, but knows herself to be plain and feels the sting of rejection from those who overlook her. Even the egotistical professor reveals that he sees himself clearly as an old, washed-up bore. And yet they come, again and again, out of their interior spaces to attack, succor, and engage with one another, burdens shouldered or tossed.

The acting is thoughtful and self-conscious, as it should be for a play in which each character has spent the better part of a semester infusing his or her role with history, a movement vocabulary, inflections of voice that go beyond the realism with which Chekhov revolutionized plays and short stories. Chekhov’s characters are messy, immediate and real, and the actors in this production create that stream of consciousness reality and draw the audience into the story even as the seams between scenes and casts show. I found myself wondering why each of the two Yelenas played her particular section – Ashley Diane Long, with hair loose and free, seemed to play the moments when her character did “let go, for once in her life,” while Jamie Bell’s bound locks seemed to speak to the more restrained moments of that character’s feeling. And yet, it was clear that each actress would have been capable of playing the opposite side of the character. Each of the paired major characters showed this flexibility, and the parts acted by a single player were infused with the kind of detail that makes a lesser role unforgettable.

If none of this appeals to you, go see Uncle Vanya for the music. Bart Matthews, a long-term musical collaborator with director Jeff Storer, has written and arranged the music for this production, and he plays the majority of it onstage, joined by talented cast members on violin, ukelele, trumpet and voice. There is not enough of it to make this play a musical – instead, it lyrically comments on the onstage action, underscoring the sadness of everyday disappointments and helping us to believe, as the professor’s daughter states, “You can endure the pain, Uncle Vanya.”

In Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, there is no backstage, literally or figuratively. Not only are the lives of his characters opened to us, but this production’s revelation of the backstage actor reaches beyond the nonexistent proscenium to include the audience. The professor exhorts us near the end of the play, “You must all take action and do something!” These players and their director have followed his command elegantly. And so must we.



Duke Theatre Studies’ Uncle Vanya continues through November 24th, with productions on Thursdays through Sundays.

You can buy tickets here: https://tickets.duke.edu/Online/default.asp


photo (2)

photo by Janice Smith of Big Dog Little Bed Productions

writer Ginna Purrington


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