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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A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre’s Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, Richmond, VA 23221

Performances: July 7-31, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20-$33

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

Dating back to 1773, She Stoops to Conquer has long been considered one of the most popular English-language comedies. Interestingly, it was a major theatrical success by a relatively unknown playwright – Oliver Goldsmith – and the play that set Director James Ricks, then a middle school student, ablaze with a passion for live theater. It is also credited with being the source of the phrase, “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”

The plot is a familiar one – two affluent families, the Hardcastles and the Marlows, arrange to introduce their children, Kate and Charles, with an end goal of marriage. But Kate’s spoiled, immature older half-brother Tony Lumpkin sees this as an excellent opportunity to wreak havoc of monumental proportions. Tony likes to hang out with the masses at the local pub – at one point Mr. Hardcastle say of him, disparagingly, “the only school he’ll ever go to is the ale house.” And that is precisely where he is when he intercepts his sister’s would-be suitor and his traveling companion – at the local pub – as they search for the remotely-located country home of the Hardcastle family. Tony convinces Charles that the Hardcastle estate is an inn. There ensues a “comedy of errors,” and one fascinating result is that young Charles Marlow, who has been described as educated and shy, imperiously treats his unsuspecting hosts as servants, displaying a side Kate was not expecting. Kate, however, has her own agenda, and disguises herself as a barmaid to further explore the character of her would-be suitor.

Like any good sitcom, there are subplots and counter-plots to the main theme. These include a secret love-affair between Kate’s cousin Constance and young Marlow’s friend George Hastings, Mrs. Marlow’s attempts to hide an inheritance, and Tony’s attempts to avoid an arranged marriage of his own. This simplified synopsis does not do justice to the live production. She Stoops to Conquer is neither trite nor stereotypical. Supporting characters are as interesting as leading characters – establishing a sort of social equality that was far ahead of its time.

Debra Wagoner was delightful in the role of Mrs. Hardcastle, the master (or mistress) of much of the seemingly unintended humor. In one of the latter scenes, she gets her comeuppance when her own son (Josh Mullins as Tony Lumpkin) tricks her into thinking she is lost in the wilderness. Mark Persinger as her husband, proved to be a stark contrast to Wagoner’s character and brought his own unique style of humor. Hardcastle, you see, is decidedly old-fashioned, stuck in the past and despises anything modern, while his wife (a social climber) and daughter (a sensible young woman with a mind of her own) yearn for modern fashions and are attracted by the lure of the city. Wagoner proved to be a capable antagonist, while Katy Feldhahn (Kate) was more than capable of conquering.

Josh Mullins, as Mrs. Hardcastle’s spoiled son, happily wreaked havoc at every turn. Calie Bain as Kate and Tony’s cousin (and Tony’s reluctant intended) Constance Neville was solid and dependable in a somewhat predictable and unremarkable role while Ian Page played his role close to the edge and over the top as the socially challenged Young Marlow.

That being said, She Stoops to Conquer was a delightful summer divertissement, comedically ahead of its time, pleasant and fairly well-paced, with direction by James Ricks. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I would certainly give it a second chance in the future.

NOTE: Unfortunately, this summer’s Shakespeare Festival took the brunt of the summer storms. Both productions at Agecroft Hall were plagued by cancellations due to weather, and, alas, the closing production of She Stoops to Conquer was no exception.

She Stoops to Conquer

By Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by James Ricks


Mrs. Hardcastle……………  Debra Wagoner

Mr. Hardcastle ……………   Mark Persinger

Tony Lumpkin ……………   Josh Mullins

Kate Hardcastle ..…………   Katy Feldhahn

Constance Neville…………   Calie Bain

Young Marlow….…………   Ian Page

George Hastings.…………    William Cardozo

Sir Charles/Landlord ……  John Cauthen

Pimple/Betty ………………..   Els Dusek

Diggory/Fellow ..…………    Alex Chapman

Roger/Jeremy .……….……    Audrey Sparrow

Production Team

Director:  James Ricks

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Costume Designer: Cora Delbridge

Lighting Designer: Andrew Bonniwell

Props Designer: Emily Hicks

Music Director: Jason Marks

Choreographer: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Dialect Coach: Harrison Runion

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

Stage Construction: Kevin Johnson

Production Manager: James  Ricks

Run Time: About 2 ½ hours with 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: David Parrish Photography