SANTA FE, N.M. — Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once said, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Brenda Bynum, director of Santa Fe’s Oasis Theatre Company, cited that quote while discussing the play “Uncle Vanya,” which includes characters’ struggles to accept their place in life or desire to break away from a typical role.
David Mamet’s adaptation of the 19th-century Russian play will be staged by Oasis until Oct. 28.
According to Bynum, Chekhov is known for writing plays that are about “atmosphere.”
“You have to come to the play that way,” she said. “You can’t come expecting – well, there is a beginning, middle and end, but there’s something that draws you in. It’s much like his short stories, in that you’re pulled into the story and it’s the specifics that happen within the characters that really start building out the tapestry and making it three-dimensional.”
She added that she’s intentionally laid out the Teatro Paraguas theater as if the audience is sitting outside the house that the play is centered in, watching events unfold, like flies on the wall.
The four-act play follows a household in the Russian countryside, owned by elderly and self-involved retired professor Serebryakov and his unhappy, young second wife Yelena. Their country estate is managed by Vanya, the brother of the professor’s late first wife, and Sonya, the professor’s daughter from his first marriage and Vanya’s niece. The estate is often visited by Dr. Astrov, a country doctor.
Throughout the play, many characters’ feelings of dissatisfaction are made clear. Love triangles ensue (Sonya is in love with Dr. Astrov, who is in love with Yelena, and Vanya is also in love with Yelena), and relationships are tested by betrayals and jealousy.
Bynum and Jim Jenner, who plays Vanya in Santa Fe’s production, said a large underlying theme in the play is trust and what happens when that trust is broken – including trust among the characters and, for some, trust of themselves.
There is a lack of self-acceptance within Vanya, explained Jenner. He’s very intelligent and thinks he could have done more with his life than manage a country estate for his sister’s husband. But he’s not been able to break out of his daily routine or his era’s class structure.
“It’s a very central problem a lot of people are faced with,” said Jenner. “Maybe not really accepting certain qualities within them and allowing that to flourish … to be aligned with your vocation, your calling.”
Vanya has made countless sacrifices for the professor, Jenner said, and he begins to feel undervalued and questions his dedication to his brother-in-law. “There’s a sense of that ennui, (or) what’s the worth of it all?” said Jenner.
Though Chekhov wrote the play in the late 1890s, Bynum said its themes and discussions remain relevant today. Doing a period piece, she said, is like a mask. “It releases the audience to relate to it in a modern way,” she said.