Playwright: Anton Chekhov: Translation: Annie Baker. At: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800 or GoodmanTheatre.org; $20-$59. Runs through: March 19
Playwright Annie Baker famously tested the patience of audiences with her drawn-out Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Flick. So it would make sense that Baker would also be keen to write a new translation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanyaa Russian "comedy" where arguably not much happens plot-wise, though most of the characters are certifiably disillusioned with dashed dreams by the end.
Baker's easily conversational 2012 adaptation of Uncle Vanya makes a strong and secure Chicago debut courtesy of the Goodman Theatre. This production marks the 30th-anniversary season of Robert Falls' tenure as the Goodman's artistic director, and it's an appropriate choiceeven if the characters regretfully reflect on much of the wasted time in their lives throughout the course of the play.
Rather than keeping Vanya set in the time of its creation in the late 19th century, Falls has pushed up the action several decades ( as reflected by the occasional modern chair and antique radio in Todd Rosenthal's robustly decaying set design ). This may slightly jar when characters refer to offstage "peasants," though perhaps Falls wanted to emphasize that even under Communist rule that the lives of poor rural folks didn't drastically change all that much.
To bring the contained and jarringly explosive dramatic bursts of Uncle Vanya to life, Falls has assembled an appealing ensemble. Prominently cast are two Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members in the key roles of Vanya ( a highly strung Tim Hopper ) and his niece, Sonya ( a practical and heartbreaking Caroline Neff ).
Marton Csokas makes for a fascinatingly gruff Astrov, the alcoholic doctor who like so many in the play becomes obsessed with the beautifully unattainable Yelena ( a truly fascinating Kristen Bush ). She is unhappily married to the retired professor Alexander Serebryakov ( an appropriately abrasive and oblivious David Darlow ).
Mary Ann Thebus is a joy as the blunt-talking elderly nanny Marina, while Larry Neumann, Jr. makes for a sometimes unsettling presence as the neighboring impoverished landowner Telegin ( aka Waffles thanks to his exaggerated puffy skin-condition makeup ).
Although all the characters may long for drastic change, there is also a safety in their disappointing return to stasis and the way things have always been by the end. Falls' take on Baker's recent Vanya adaptation insightfully brings out the characters' hurt of missed chances and resignation that they won't be getting what they want. It's definitely not a happy end, but a realistic one that also feels rich after so many emotions churn and get tamped down just beneath the surface.