With a Vanya on My Knee

Goin' to Alabama with Chekhov's favorite uncle in A Country Life at WaterTower Theatre

Forget, if you want to, that A Country Life is based on Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (originally subtitled Scenes From a Country Life). Chekhov is too tough to digest, so many long Russian names to swallow and heavy soliloquies to chew on for three or four acts. It's better to consider writer-director Terry Martin's new grits-and-gravy interpretation of Vanya on its own. Sticking surprisingly closely to the dialogue of the 1899 original--with some efficient editing and the appropriate allowances for Southern patois--Martin and his cast at WaterTower Theatre in Addison deliver a warm and satisfying new two-act play about one funny-sad family living under layers of regret in a run-down house in the Alabama boonies in 1922.

Instead of the Voitskis and the Serabrakoffs, we get the Brookses and the Scotts. Unmarried Uncle Johnny Brooks (R Bruce Elliott) manages the family farm with his niece Sara (Emily Scott Banks) and a couple of servants, smart-mouthed housekeeper Ruth (Tippi Hunter) and half-witted handyman Wink (Willy Welch). Every penny of profit from the farm's cotton crops goes to Johnny's brother-in-law, Professor Alexander Scott (Jerry Haynes), and his new, much younger wife, Helen (Lydia Mackay). They have lived in Atlanta up to now but arrive at the ramshackle farmhouse one day declaring that they're moving in for good.

Into the mix steps everybody's best friend, environmentally minded country doctor Michael Adams (Mark Nutter), a handsome, melancholy figure who makes frequent stops at the Brooks-Scott house to check on the ailing professor and to engage in all-night drinking sessions with Johnny and Ruth. Adams takes one look at Helen, a peroxide glamourpuss in a body-skimming flapper dress, and gets a bad case of the love flu. "You're like an infection," he tells her, making it sound like a compliment. Johnny, too, goes feverish in the loins for the professor's sassy spouse. None of this sits well with poor little Sara. She idolizes her Uncle Johnny and has been secretly in love for six years with the dashing Dr. Adams. She's afraid to tell him how she feels, however, for fear of rejection. "Maybe it's better not to know," she says wistfully. "Then there will be hope."

R Bruce Elliott and Emily Scott Banks, lovesick in A Country Life
R Bruce Elliott and Emily Scott Banks, lovesick in A Country Life

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continues through February 13 at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. Call 972-450-6232.

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All of this unrequited love roiling under one roof is bound to lead to problems. Over several stormy summer nights, the family's worst secrets tumble out. Both Johnny and the dishy doc make a grab for Helen. The gout-plagued professor reveals a scheme for selling the farm, which legally belongs to Sara, and using the money to buy a new house in the city, a move that would leave Johnny and the others homeless.

Realizing that all of his work over the years has gone for nothing, Johnny turns suicidally depressed and steals some morphine from the doctor's bag. "I've wasted my life," he moans. That classically Chekhovian theme will be repeated by almost every character in the play.

And they call this a comedy? Yes, strangely enough, there are plenty of good laughs in A Country Life. Not the booming har-dee-hars of farce, but hearty chuckles of recognition at the familiar human weaknesses of these lovesick people and their ridiculous attempts to right their own romantic wrongs. As a writer, Martin, WaterTower's producing artistic director, has a keen sense of what's funny and what isn't. His script is rich with the biting sarcasm that Southerners often use to ease tensions during family squabbles. Peeking out from underneath is Chekhov's dark Russian angst. "Isn't it a lovely day?" Helen vacantly observes. "Yes," growls Johnny, "a nice day to shoot yourself."

As a director, Martin casts actors who achieve the natural, relaxed technique that is his stock-in-trade. Elliott, slouching down into the worn-out furniture on Randel Wright's expressionistic set, captures Uncle Johnny's mordant wit and his deflated air of desperation. With gray hair as lank as an old mop head, Elliott seems to shrink further into himself as his character realizes it's too late to carpe diem and that his best friend is making time with the woman he wants.

Mark Nutter played Brick to Elliott's Big Daddy in WaterTower's fine production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago. Nutter often gets cast in leading-man roles that rely on his golden good looks and Texas swagger. He's just shy of believable as the tree-hugging doctor in A Country Life. But durn, he's so purty to look at, even with a scraggle of whiskers, who cares? The man generates real sizzle in those clinches with Lydia Mackay's slinky Helen.

Jerry Haynes uses his expert comic skills to make the priggish old professor a harmless buffoon instead of an out-and-out villain. Tippi Hunter's Ruth sounds an awful lot like other characters she's played (including Truvy in Contemporary Theatre's Steel Magnolias), but she's a pro at taking her time to get a laugh. As the grandma--forgot to mention that there's an old lady who toddles onstage once or twice--Gene Raye Price is years too young for the part but in her big gray wig bears a striking resemblance to the great Shelley Winters.

Besides Elliott's, the other standout performance here is Emily Scott Banks as the maiden niece, Sara. Her long speech at the end of Act 2 is delicately acted and utterly heartbreaking. And when she blurts "I'm ugly!" to her beautiful nemesis Helen, she says it with such naked self-awareness that you hope for just a moment that the good doctor will come to his senses, stride through the doorway and sweep her off her feet.

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