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Review: Turmoil throbs in 'Uncle Vanya'

Rob Merritt photo

Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astrov (Joshua Fryvecind) declares his love for newlywed Elena Andreevna (Katy Hahn). Her arrival on her much-older husband’s estate has created disquietude for all who live and enter there, in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” The drama is making its Iowa premiere through Oct. 6 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.
Rob Merritt photo Dr. Mikhail Lvovich Astrov (Joshua Fryvecind) declares his love for newlywed Elena Andreevna (Katy Hahn). Her arrival on her much-older husband’s estate has created disquietude for all who live and enter there, in Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” The drama is making its Iowa premiere through Oct. 6 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — A rare experience is making its Iowa premiere at Riverside Theatre through Oct. 6.

The words of a master have been honored with a new translation, cradled in the artistry of a masterful director, actors, designers and technicians. The intimate 118-seat theater is perfect for pulling the audience into the drama of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

The original play premiered in Moscow in 1899, but the angst of a family in crisis resonates through any age.

Vanya (Tim Budd) and his niece Sonya (Jessica Link) have been managing their family’s modest Russian estate, to support Sonya’s father, Alexander (Eric Forsythe), a retired professor who was married to Vanya’s late sister and lives in the city. His arrival with his new, much younger wife, Elena (Katy Hahn), throws the household into turmoil.

Glamorous and shallow, her most astute observation is: “Things aren’t right in this house.”

Elena is the polar opposite of Sonya, whose beauty is hidden beneath the surface of her hardscrabble life. Vanya and Sonya have devoted their lives to their work on Alexander’s behalf, but soon Vanya is gazing with adoration upon Elena, calling her “his joy.”

Sonya secretly has been pining over the rural doctor, Mikhail Lvovich Astrov (Joshua Fryvecind), who is making more frequent visits to the estate to tend to the professor’s leg pain. And soon Mikhail is professing his adoration for Elena.

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In Hahn’s skilled hands, Elena moves from being the vacuous villain to a sympathetic character who, like all the others, is trapped in her own dissatisfying life. The breakthrough emerges when she becomes Sonya’s confidante. They giggle like schoolgirls over Sonya’s crush on the doctor, and plan the best way to find out if he feels the same way about her. Of course, he doesn’t, and seems just as sad about that as Sonya.

The real bully is the professor, who blusters through the action, becoming perhaps the most unsympathetic character, especially when he announces his plans for making more money at the expense of his family.

But the beauty of this show is the way Budd moves through the title role, embodying the frustrations, anger, bitterness and passion seething just below the surface.

Link is luminous, imbuing Sonya with a quiet despair as her world spins out of control, and yet a gleeful vulnerability as she imagines creating a life with the doctor.

Rachael Lindhart brings wisdom, comfort and wit to the household as the beloved Nanny, and Krista Neumann adds stoicism as Vanya’s mother, Maria.

S. Benjamin Farrar’s scenery is sparse but affecting, with a simple arch leading from the versatile playing space to the unseen rooms of the house, and a back wall that transforms the stage in a delightful way.

Karle Meyers’ costumes are gorgeous, capturing the turn of the 20th century styles in a way that is lovely, fragile and worn — just like the lives playing out in this penetrating drama.

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Uncle Vanya”

WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

WHEN: To Oct. 6; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $30 adults; $28 over age 60 and 30 and under; $24 veterans, military and immediate family; $10 students K to college; box office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org

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EXTRA: Free talkbacks following performances Friday (9/20), with Miriam Gilbert, actors and director and Oct. 5 with Anna Barker, actors and director

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