At first thought, the idea of David Mamet adapting Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" seems odd, but it isn't. One only has to remember that the original director of Chekhov's work, Stanislavsky, insisted the plays were dramas. The playwright insisted they were comedies. Just the sort of irony to appeal to Mamet.
His adaptation is respectful, with the added gloss of contemporary urgency, particularly in this staging at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre, performed by young actors with dedication and integrity.
Director Gretchen Kanne's leisurely intro into the work, with actors and techies arriving for a rehearsal in street clothes on a leftover set from another play, is offhand and casual. Yet suddenly the audience is right in the middle of Chekhov's action, the sort of theatrical trick that playwrights adore.
The only character in any sort of costume is the Professor, Serebryakov, an actor who can't get into his character without trimmings. It's another trick that works beautifully.
Chekhov's melodramatic and often highly comedic tale of a family that narrowly avoids utter destruction over whether to sell the family estate proves, under Kanne's artful and insightful guidance, both Stanislavsky's and Chekhov's intent--as well as Mamet's, for these are real people, whether at the end of the 19th or the 20th century, with concerns as vital today as they were then.
Kanne's casting is almost impeccable, and she has blended the performances into a memorable tapestry, her own trick creating the impression that these actors in street clothes are actually costumed in another period. The contemporary performance style is seamlessly meshed with that of the earlier day.
Vanya, played with flights of giddy abandon by W. Lee Daily, is tempered with equally effective moments of bitter impotence and self-defeat in a rich and detailed performance. As his friend Astrov, the doctor who finds love with the wrong woman, and who is easily distracted by the waste of woodlands and nature around him, Christopher Younggren is powerful. His tunnel vision and adamant insularity is a well-wrought portrait of a useless man.
Danielle Bisutti's Yelena, the Professor's wife, and Christine Terrisse's Sonya, her stepdaughter, are both images of eloquent imagination, the former a woman who has missed the boat she wanted, the latter watching her own boat drift away. As the family matriarch, Isabella Whitfield is dour and regal, with a touching sense of her own loss of an empty past.
Scott E. Nabb provides intriguing color as Waffles, an impoverished family friend. The serenity and wisdom of Karoline Steavenson's old nurse Marina is touching and affecting. All are excellently conceived performances, creating a notable image, with the exception of Ty T. Turner's professor, trapped in his own lost world. Turner finds no shadings in his characterization or readings.
"Uncle Vanya," Arena Theatre, Cal State Fullerton, Nutwood Avenue and State College Boulevard. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends March 22. (714) 278-3371. $8. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.