Yelena yawns out her days in a May-December marriage to a significantly older professor, much to the vexation of housemate Vanya, a crank in full-on mid-life crisis who has a flair for bathos and an aging scholar in his cross hairs. Threshold Repertory Theatre now takes on Anton Chekhov’s 19th-century masterwork, revived for recent times by Annie Baker’s recent, modernized adaptation that nabbed a 2013 Drama Desk Award. The company’s new artistic director, Jay Danner, directs.
In Threshold’s meditative, mirth-inflected production, the audience nearly inhabits this bucolic home, overstuffed as it is with the deferred dreams of a hodgepodge of friends and relatives. The set, representing the downstairs rooms, runs the length of the space, flanked on either side by rows of seats. Its well-appointed trappings, which layer jewel-toned furnishings and ornate rugs, telegraph the dwelling of someone with a good eye — not to mention a good account with Pottery Barn.
The characters travel the full expanse of it, flopping, idling, fuming, plodding, parsing, whining and reclining, as they pair off and huddle in for confabs, contretemps and sulk sessions regarding their respective lots in life. It makes for a comfy country idyll for us all, though the sheer stretch of real estate results in some lag time while actors transition the lengthy set from one interlude to the next.
Vanya, who is played with deceptive ease and a dollop of droll by Robin Burke, feels robbed of his rightful love with Yelena (the striking, strident Tara Denton-Holwegner). Years earlier, when Yelena was unattached, he had demurred pursuing her due to his reverence for her now-husband, the crotchety, imperious Professor (Frederic Dejaco), who grabbed the hand of his much younger bride.
What’s more, Vanya is not even indulged in a proper pity party, as he’s constantly on the receiving end of interjections from his provincial mother (Susan Lovell) and knowing nanny (Samille Basler). The only one in the house who seems to be jovial whatsoever is the blissfully dim Waffles, who is played with lighthearted poignancy by Bradley Keith. Supporting an estranged paramour, Waffles shoulders his very real burden with far less attitude, and some guitar tunes to boot.
Similarly, a doctor named Astrov (Brad Leon) has taken to drink to deal with his disdain for the Podunk town in which he practices, while Vanya’s daughter, Sonya (the canny, comedic Sarah Coe) nurses her unrequited feelings for the swilling physician, as she bemoans her lack of beauty and pines pitiably from across the room.
And what of Yelena? She is absolutely dying of boredom, and none-too-entertained by gushing proclamations of this rogue’s gallery of hobbled hearts. As the loved and the loveless rue their fates, the stakes elevate and the household is thus shocked out of their complacency, at least for a spell.
What we experience from our cozy proximity to the onstage action in Uncle Vanya is not only the vanity of our human desires and nursed resentments, but also the utter ridiculousness of them. All the heavy-sighing and heart-thumping, particularly that which is projected onto a person who could not give a rip, offers a close-up on just how silly our individual bemoaning may be. In the hands of Threshold’s fine cast and thoughtful production, Uncle Vanya offers a meaty rumination and a bit of ribbing on the human race, one tragicomic chump at a time.