Doctor Feelbad 

U of M professor Josie Helming makes Chekhov her swan song.

All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realize that. When they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'" -- Anton Chekhov

"Doctor! Doctor! Can't you see I'm burning?! Burning!"

-- The Thompson Twins

ON HIS DEATHBED, IN 1905, RUSSIAN COUNtry doctor turned acclaimed writer Anton Chekhov made a declaration of abiding faith. He looked into the near future and determined he was merely a flavor of the moment and that after his passing nobody would ever perform his damned depressing "comedies" again. It was completely in keeping with a character that could make even A.A. Milne's tailless donkey seem like a gushing fountain of unadulterated hope.

Certainly Chekhov's career as a playwright had begun badly. A production of Ivanov, a play about depression and suicide (and one in which the young protagonist greatly resembles the author), had been poorly received both by critics and audiences alike. His subsequent offering, The Wood Demon, a dragging, amorphous tale of petty intrigues and unrequited love, was so unequivocally rejected that the good physician put down his pen and swore he'd never write for the theater again.

Of course, he did, thank goodness, and when at last Chekhov's work fell into the able hands of the Moscow Art Theatre and the visionary director Constantin Stanislavski, Dr. Chekhov's luck took a turn for the better. He hit first with the enigmatic tragicomedy The Seagull and established his newfound reputation with a revised version of The Wood Demon retitled Uncle Vanya. Proving he was a better playwright than prophet, Chekhov's plays remain in heavy rotation worldwide. Both The Seagull and Uncle Vanya have been staged in Memphis in the last decade, and exactly 10 years after Kate Davis directed a stylish, if technically conservative, production of the latter for Playhouse on the Square, Vanya returns to the University of Memphis and the capable hands of retiring theater professor Josie Helming. And while Helming's choices seem, at least initially, to be excessively dreary and her actors excessively starched, the play remains as fascinating as its characters are frustrating.

Drink and complain, drink and complain. That's all poor Uncle Vanya does these days. He's worked in obscurity his entire life, sacrificing his own bid for fame to assist his brother-in-law, the highfalutin Professor. Vanya's cranky and unloved, even by the woman he adored. He's too weak to kill himself and too ineffectual to commit murder. Then there's poor, poor Dr. Astrov. All this cynical tree-hugger does is complain and drink. He thinks he might be a quack, is blind to the affections of a good woman, and pines for a married woman who could love him back but won't. Next, poor, poor, poor old Professor. He's all but impotent, already forgotten, and determined to sell the whole estate out from under everyone. And, alas, the ladies: Sonya, enamored of, even addicted to, Dr. Astrov, who only loves Yelena, and the beautiful Yelena herself, married to the Professor and loved by every single man who encounters her, is plagued by terminal boredom. These are the players in Uncle Vanya and their respective problems. Compared to the tragedies of old, it all seems rather petty. And so it was intended. It is in Uncle Vanya that Chekhov reveals his business model: Tragedy is not found in the stuff of myth but in the "little intrigues." "Any idiot can face a crisis," he once said. "It's the day-to-day living that wears you out." With this existential yawn, the court of realism was called to order.

For the U of M's Vanya, director Helming has stripped away every scenic element that is not essential to the action and has chosen to perform in the wonderful round. Surrounded by the audience, performers can move more naturally and fluidly. Performing in the round can be liberating for both actors and observers. Yet in this Vanya, a good deal of contrivance remains. The actors, with the possible exception of Joe Sevier's weary Vanya, move in a rigid manner. There is, likewise, a mechanical, monotonous, and too-universal-to-be-an-accident quality to the vocal delivery. It's the sort of "just say the damn line" thing that works for Mamet and almost no one else. The up-end of this is that the play moves briskly, uninterrupted by painful emoting, and every word (even impossible-to-pronounce Russian names) is delivered to perfection. Chekhov's dialogue is so nuanced, clarity alone can convey a character's entirety, but in this environment it's also a bit (an acceptable bit, mind you) of a cheat. There isn't any room for the actors to get down and dirty, and with characters so exasperated -- and exasperating -- a hair less formality could turn this effective production into a real stunner.

Susan Boyle (the Old Mother) finds occasions to personalize her character, as does Nate Eppler (Dr. Astrov). When Eppler, a fine straight-faced comedian, grasps his neck, embarrassed to be seen by a young lady without his necktie, it's easy to see why Chekhov called his plays comedies. It's also easy to see why so few audiences would ever begin to agree with him. If the tragedy is in the "little intrigues," the comedy must certainly come from the tiniest details.

Through March 2nd.

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