Famed dramatist Anton Chekhov is perhaps best known in the United States for the concept of Chekhov’s Gun: the idea that every element of a story should be essential. In other words, if a writer puts a gun on the mantelpiece in act one, that gun should go off before the end of the show. This maxim is something Chekhov himself strove to adhere to in his writing career, during which he produced numerous short stories and four plays, now regarded as classics. Although his work is not well known to the public at large, his influence is widespread. Case in point: Old Town Actors Studio’s current production, “Vanya,” is an original play directed and written by Erin Sullivan Baker, but inspired by the works of Anton Chekhov.
Audiences’ first impression of “Vanya” will be the striking set, which represents an outdoor patio on an old Russian estate. An ornate portrait dominates upstage center, and the rest of the walls are painted black, gold, red, and blue. The color scheme and the antique-looking wooden furniture successfully evoke an old-world aesthetic. Strips of green fabric hang in clusters from the ceiling, abstractly suggesting the trees that surround the estate. This careful design goes a long way toward setting the morose mood of the play.
“Vanya” seems to take place sometime after the events of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and features some of the same characters. Playwright Baker has penned a script that captures the spirit of Anton Chekhov’s writing. The basic plot structure: in 1930s Soviet Russia, a family and their close friends seem poised for a parting of ways, with outside forces pulling them in various directions.
The title character, played by the captivating Richard Baker, is a retired playwright in the autumn of his life. Baker is excellent as usual, able to navigate the complexities of the character with aplomb. Vanya is a haunted man — in a somewhat literal sense, since the play is punctuated by interludes during which Vanya converses with the phantasm of his ex-lover, famed Russian actress Lyubov, played with the appropriate gravitas by Michelle Middlestedt. It’s not the first time these two have acted opposite each other, and their dynamic is deployed to good effect.
Vanya’s niece, Sonya, is vividly realized by Camile Thomsen. Thomsen’s Sonya is beautifully realized as a tragic figure who can’t help but hope, even when she knows she’s doomed.
Jason Bartosic’s sardonic country doctor, Mikhail Astrov, is a welcome dose of levity. Under his prickly exterior, there’s genuine concern over Vanya and his family. Bart Nawotniak makes a strong impression with his intense portrayal of local veterinarian Boris, who is incensed over Dr. Astrov’s treatment of his horses. Randy Tolman rounds out the cast as Petya, the estate’s hired help, and evokes some real pathos in his final scene.
“Vanya” is a meditative and melancholic piece of theater. Don’t expect a rapid-fire plot; this is a play that requires patience, and a certain taste for mood pieces like the ones Chekhov wrote. If you are in the mood for something moody, you’ll be pleased to pull the trigger on “Vanya.” The final performances are Friday and Saturday.
Ted Bonman teaches English and theater at Century High School.