Unrequited Lives
June 18, 1973
T.E. Kalem

Chekhov's drama moves almost in reverse. Instead of a conflict of wills, there is a frustration of desires. None of his characters do much of anything or expect to get anywhere, but all of them are aware of a nagging, infuriating immobility. Climaxes are anticlimaxes. Precisely because life has passed Chekhov's people by, aged them, defeated them, they bear eloquent witness to how avidly men and women hunger for life. The laughter and tears in Chekhov arise from the recognized or un­recognized disparity between the life one wants and the life one gets.

All of these elements are present in Uncle Vanya, and they are vividly realized in a superbly exhilarating revival directed by Mike Nichols. An arid, aging retired professor, Serebryakov (Barnard Hughes) returns to the family estate with his young wife Elena (Julie Christie). The visit is a catalytic agent that exposes the alternately tragic and comic tensions of unrequited loves and lives. The caustically self-pitying Uncle Vanya (Nicol Williamson), who has worked the estate along with his niece Sonya (Elizabeth Wilson), realizes that he has sacrificed his life in the service of a pompous academic fraud. The mute adoration he offers Elena bores and annoys her.

Williamson and Christie in “Uncle Vanya”
Climaxes and anticlimaxes.

The local doctor Astrov (George C. Scott) yearns for a Russia that would not brutalize its peasants and ravish its land, but disillusion has sunk him in drink. He too falls half in love with Elena, and she with him, but she is too indolent and conventional to make an erotic leap to freedom. Poor Sonya loves Astrov‑-a futile, heartbreaking hope that exists only to be dashed. When Vanya learns that Serebryakov proposes to sell the estate, he goes staggeringly blind with rage and fires two revolver shots at the professor, missing both times‑-the ultimate, humiliating proof of his ineffectualness. The visitors depart. Sonya tries to comfort herself and Vanya with a vague hope of heaven where "we shall rest".

This classic plot does not sound funny and much of it is not, but a good deal of it is. Chekhov's compassion for his characters' bruised hearts never blurred the amused clinical eye he focuses on their petty, self‑deluding foibles. Chekhov frowned on directors who made his plays too glum and autumnal, and Nichols, with his agile comic flair, has certainly avoided doing that. He gets marvelous assistance from Nicol Williamson, whose Vanya is compacted with a mischievous, sardonic, self-mocking wit that not only defines his own character, but also makes a comment on the situation of everyone in the play.

If Nicol Williamson's Vanya is hyperkinetic, Scott's Astrov is granitically controlled, pervasively masculine. These two brilliant actors are an ensemble within an ensemble, and the scenes they play together have the charged intensity of mano a mano contests between bullfighters. Never, though, is the rest of the cast overshadowed. Julie Christie combines art with her own dazzling beauty to convey the enchambered mermaid in Elena. While Elizabeth Wilson is too old for Sonya, she brings resonant poignance to the role, and Lillian Gish is everybody's dearest granny as an old nurse. As for Serebryakov, he is the fussy, self‑centered curmudgeon of the play, and Barnard Hughes plays him just that way. The entire cast deserves every "bravo" and blistered palm of applause that it gets. Since the eight-week engagement is sold out, some enterprising film maker ought to get this Uncle Vanya on celluloid so that thousands more may enjoy it.