Blue Room’s Uncle Jack modernizes Chekhov’s tragicomedy Uncle Vanya
As it is in the habit of doing, the Blue Room Theatre has unearthed a challenging new play from the East Coast and brought it to little ol’ Chico for a West Coast premiere. This time, it’s Uncle Jack, a reworking of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by New York playwright Jeff Cohen.
Instead of Russia in 1899, Cohen’s adaptation is set more than 100 years later in West Virginia’s remote Appalachian foothills (in the Blue Room’s version, it’s set in rural Northern California); the names and the dialogue have been modernized to recreate the original work’s intent of being a contemporary story for a contemporary audience.
Chekhov was interested in the truth, not so much literary conventions, and what made him so revolutionary (and continues make him relevant, generally regarded as second only to Shakespeare in his influence) was his tight focus on people, with meaning and purpose buried in the small details of everyday life.
In his notes from the program, Cohen defends his contemporaneous adaptation by suggesting that Chekhov “would not have wanted [his plays] to be admired as one admires a famous painting, from behind a velvet rope in a museum. … [He wanted audiences to be] able to look up on stage and actually see characters that reminded them of themselves or folks they knew.”
So how does the Blue Room and director Paul Stout handle what could be a daunting task of tinkering with a classic? Very well, thankfully.
The basic story is that stuffy Columbia University art history professor Alexander Coughlin (played by Don Eggert) has retired and dragged his fashion-model bride Helena (Allison Rich) to live with him on his deceased ex-wife’s family’s estate. For one emotionally charged summer, their presence is a catalyst for unearthing the buried emotions of everyone on the farm, and as the digging progresses, a steady eruption of regret bubbles forth.
“I’ve lost faith in life, so I turn to whatever I can find to dull the pain” is a signature line of middle-aged, often-drunk patriarch, Jack “Uncle Jack” Vaughn (Joe Hilsee). The sentiment of being stuck and unable to navigate the loss and pain of life is the thread running through every character as the play commences.
Unrequited love, death of loved ones, professional failure, self-loathing, unrealized potential, broken dreams, sexual frustration—all the biggies are here, one or another, for each of the characters, and more for Uncle Jack, who is suffering through just about all of them. He’s been running the farm his whole life, and he’s bitter about never getting out and making it as a writer, and he’s especially bitter about having financially supported the husband of his dead sister as he enjoyed the life Jack really wanted.
Everyone is dissatisfied here. The professor wants the big-city life back, as does his young bride Helen, who is feeling the empty pain of living life as a trophy wife. There’s also the story of the local doctor/environmental activist (Brett Edwards), drawn to the farm to drink away the unstimulating days with Jack, and the professor’s neglected daughter (Katherine Francis) who is in love with the doctor but says nothing as she toils away on the farm with her Uncle Jack.
The entire cast is spot on, but in a lot of ways, the play is at the mercy of Hilsee, whose characterization is so well-conceived and seamless that everything he says is engaging. And, he’s insanely hilarious.
Hilsee is there for his Jack and for every other character—reacting, not acting, and all that—tying together the individual vignettes with his mere presence, and stirring the emotional pot with his opinionated tirades and pointed sarcasm.
Without giving too much away, things do come to a volatile climax, but there’s no resolution that follows. The final message here is simply pain—emotional pain. And in the powerful final scene with uncle and niece alone in the farm house, things are quiet as the curtain gets pulled back on that dark hole inside that we all keep stuffed full. It’s a chilly moment, and Hilsee and Francis really let it sink in for one of those rare instances where the characters disappear, leaving the human actors exposed for a brief emotional connection with the audience.