Crying Uncle: UNCLE JACK

10929149_10152928903511072_1633828632893124184_nPresented by Boston Center for American Performance and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Written and Directed by Michael Hammond
Adapted from the play by Anton Chekhov

February 12 – March 1, 2015
BU Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio
264 Huntington Avenue, Boston
Boston Playwright’s Theatre on Facebook

Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) You know, I’ve never noticed it before, but there really is something innately Chekhovian about major summer-stock theatres (particularly in the New England Area). Out in the wilds of Western Massachusetts, a seasonal culture abounds. Large, stately mansions (mostly empty during the rest of the year) stand ready to receive their visitors; high-status patrons, family dear and estranged, and random acquaintances who have long been treated as family. The constant financial difficulties that running these estates entails weave through life upon them like a second soul. The back-to-nature feel of the Berkshires where city-slicker actors arrive to work, to fall in love, and to torment the people who call this big empty place “home” the rest of the year could very well be a cherry orchard or a provincial Russian estate. The incestuous, teeming nature of a long-standing summer-stock company almost reeks of Chekhov; the half-forgotten love affairs, the misbehavior that will never be spoken of again, and the half-cocked gun on the mantelpiece just waiting for its Act Four moment….

In this way, adaptor/director Michael Hammond has really hit on something with Uncle Jack. This thinly-veiled reference to longstanding Western Massachusetts institution Shakespeare & Company (…Will Lyman, who plays patriarch Derek, even resembles Shake. & Co. patriarch Dennis Krausnik) has some serious merit as a modern-day setting for the re-told tale of Uncle Vanya. But in other ways, Hammond’s play struggles. Chekhovian style, which Hammond has maintained in his adaptation, is mostly written as a series of monologues rather than genuine dialogue. The long sustained thoughts of Chekhov’s characters are taxing to a modern actor and though Hammond’s cast is immensely talented, this length is sometimes too much for them and they pant to the ends of these thoughts like breathless singers to the end of a too-long refrain.

The show progresses with extreme suaveness, and moves through some of the smoothest scene changes I’ve seen in some time. The set design is absolutely masterful; walking into the theatre, you might swear that you’ve instead taken a wrong turn and wound up in a Berkshires mansion rather than a BU studio. Since the set is so enveloping, the world is welcoming and warm; familiar to us New Englanders (even as the cast works to make us believe it’s “too hot to argue” when we’ve all come in dusting snow off our coats).

The cast does some hefty ensemble work and performs gracefully under the pressure of the black box. Since the audience is essentially in the actors’ living room, the close scrutiny can be a hot spot that fractures the calm composure of large-house anonymity. This cast didn’t seem to mind and lived truthfully in their world, paying us no heed as they went. Nancy E. Carroll is a tender powerhouse as Clare, and Timothy Spears brings believability to Tug that never makes us wonder why Wolfe refers to him as an “extraterrestrial”. Madeleine Lambert bring humanity to the bedraggled Elena, and Will Lyman’s Derek is believably aging into frail stubbornness. Maria DeCotis’ Sonya is as steady as the ground she treads, and Michael Kaye pontificates admirably as Wolfe. John Kooi’s Jack is generally entertaining, though I couldn’t help but become distracted by his grandiose weeping towards the play’s end that was accompanied with all the trappings of emotion except for real tears (again, not a problem in a large house; definitely a problem when your audience is so close that they can reach out and touch you).

If you’ve had no previous experience with Chekhov, then have no fear; I actually think this piece is a great introduction to the playwright and his genre. It’s accessible to a modern audience without losing fidelity to its source text. While this can seem antithetical if viewed as a modern piece of theatre, if we instead take Uncle Jack as a sort of “gateway drug” to the classics then it becomes less a problem and more a matter of acclimation. Get used to the speeches, kids, those aren’t going away for the next hundred years or so.

On the whole, Uncle Jack is well designed, expertly performed, and brilliantly directed. Its adaptation growing pains, while distracting, aren’t awfully detrimental to enjoyment of its many merits.

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