Every Family Has a Drunk Uncle…

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Richmond Shakes (formerly Quill Theatre)

At: Dominion Energy Center’s Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: January 26 – February 12, 2023

Ticket Prices: $22-$42

Info: (804) 340-0115 or https://richmondshakespeare.org/

Rarely – if ever – have I described a production as a sad comedy, but that would be an accurate description of UNCLE VANYA, written by Anton Chekhov and  adapted by Conor McPherson. First performed at the turn of the twentieth century, UNCLE VANYA remains relevant and contemporary as adapted by McPherson and under the expert direction of Dr. Jan Powell.

One thing – well, eight really– that made this production successful was the uniformly outstanding cast. Bryan Austin was relentlessly amusing yet authentic and endearing in the title role and it was his authenticity that kept his moments of wallowing in self-pity and regret from becoming shallow and vainglorious tropes. Calie Bain was a breakout star as Vanya’s niece, Sonya. In spite of the early death of her mother, her father’s re-marriage to a woman seemingly closer in age to Sonya than her father, and her unrequited love – made even more soul-crushing by the geographical isolation of their country estate – Sonja remained a bright light of hopefulness. She was the connection that made it possible for this stunningly dysfunctional family to attempt reconciliation and settle on renovation.

Lindsey Zelli as the beautiful young second wife, Yelena, displayed unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable depth. In spite of past estrangements and current rivalrous entanglements, Yelena demonstrated genuine fondness and care for Sonya. Matt Hackman’s Dr. Astrov was also multi-faceted. Totally unaware of Sonja’s love for him (really???), he was equally infatuated with her step mother, and focused on ecological issues with a passion that I am sure was way ahead of his time.

Kelly Kennedy made the most of her nearly innocuous supporting role as Nana – not, as one might think, the grandmother, but an elderly nurse who has become the family caretaker. Sitting in her chair, quietly observing or serving up hot tea, her knitting needles seemed to be a metaphor for her role in the family drama.

Alan Sader and Debra Clinton’s characters infuriated me. Sader played the pompous and manipulative Professor Alexandr Serebryakov (father of Sonya, husband of Yelena, son of Mariya, and brother-in-law of Vanya) and of course he is really good at it. It’s the kind of role where you don’t want to meet the actor soon after because you want to curl your lip and turn up your nose at his character. Clinton’s character was infuriating for a different reason. Mariya’s favoritism for her more successful son, Alexandr and disdain for the hard-working Vanya seemed passive-aggressive and possibly the result of oppression or lack of fulfillment in her own life.

For those, like me, unfamiliar with the characters, it took awhile to get a handle on the role of Telegin (Bill Blair). Affectionately called Waffles (apparently because of the condition of his skin), Telegin is a family friend, neighbor, and hanger-on who tries to fit in where he can – often with awkward results.

What makes Uncle Vanya resonate with me is these lovingly developed and multi-dimensional characters. They are familiar and seem to fit right in with contemporary issues: family dysfunction, changing inter-generational roles, the troublesome hierarchy of inheritance, and even the forced soul-searching of pandemic isolation.

Reed West’s set design – much more elaborate than Richmond Shakes’ usually sparse environments – is solidly built of sturdy, dark wood. Little details, like a chess set atop a cabinet, Nana’s knitting basket, and the clean but worn rugs support the narrative of crumbling gentility. And what can I say about the individual application of autumn leaves on the tree branches during intermission? Gretta Daughtrey’s lighting is effective and unintrusive; the storm, for example, is subtle but unmistakable. So, too, are James Ricks’ sound design, that included gentle ambient sounds, and Anna Bialkowski’s earth-toned costumes – with a jewel-toned garment or two for Yelena, and a caped-overcoat for the Professor. 

Uncle Vanya is a satisfying evening of theater performed by a stellar cast – and I say this even though I am not in the least a fan of Chekhov. There isn’t much action. Plot is virtually non-existent. But the characters are immersed in the words and that fully engages the audience in a way that creates the best kind of theater magic. Try to see it before it closes.

Uncle Vanya

By Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Conor McPherson


Nana    ………. Kelly Kennedy

Astrov ………. Matt Hackman

Vanya  ………. Bryan Austin

Telegin………. Bill Blair

Serebryakov………. Alan Sader

Sonya  ………. Calie Bain

Yelena ………. Lindsey Zelli

Mariya ……….Debra Clinton

Production Team

Artistic Director: James Ricks

Managing Director: Jase Sullivan

Director: Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Sarbajeet Das

Stage Manager: Lauren Langston

Assistant Stage Manager: Carrisa Lanstra

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Light Designer: Gretta Daughtrey

Scenic Design: W. Reed West III

Sound Design: James Ricks

Properties Design: Emily Hicks

Map Art Work: Katherine Wright

Promotional Photography: Peyton Lyons

Run Time: About 2 ½ hours including one intermission

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.


Photo Credits: Peyton Lyons and David Parrish Photography

 TOP LEFT: Bryan Austin, Bill Blair, Matt Hackman. TOP CENTER: Matt Hackman and Calie Bain. TOP RIGHT: Bryan Austin. BOTTOM LEFT: Bryan Austin. BOTTOM RIGHT: Bryan Austin, Calie Bain and Debra Clinton

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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

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