Riverside Theater brings new translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to Iowa

Riverside Theatre started their season by bringing a new spin on the classic Russian play Uncle Vanya to Iowa City.


The cast of Uncle Vanya performs at the Riverside Theatre on Thursday, September 12, 2019.

Austin J. Yerington, Arts Reporter

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov is a play that most people have been exposed to in some form or another, be it the “History of Theater” general education class or a production put on by a local university or high school theater department.

It has been performed countless times since its creation over 100 years ago, yet with a newly published translation, the play has become more human and relatable than ever, according to Riverside Theatre Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight.

Uncle Vanya is running from Sept. 13 to Oct. 6 at Riverside Theatre.

The Russian play follows Vanya and his niece Sonya, who have spent their lives in the country to support Sonya’s father and his academic pursuits. But when her father returns home with a new wife, tensions build, relationships are strained, and lifetimes are reflected on with regret.

Knight compares Vanya and Sonya’s feelings over the course of the play to the general public’s attitude in 2019, following the decade after the 2008 recession.

“A lot of people are looking at the last ten years and wondering where the time has gone,” Knight said. “That’s what the play asks: is a life not led for itself not ultimately fulfilling?”

Chekhov famously presented his plays with Konstantin Stanislavski, who created “Stanislavski’s system,” a systematic style of acting that is practiced all over the globe.

“When you’re doing a Chekhov play, you have to go back and remember those basics that are most American’s acting styles.” Tim Budd, who plays Vanya, said.

This new translation of the classic play is making its Iowa premiere at Riverside, and is amongst the first productions of it worldwide, Knight said.

With playwright Richard Nelson paired with world-renowned translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the new version of the play offers a more rare and accessible entry to the beloved play for a new audience, Knight said.

“It changes the feel of the words,” Katy Hahn, who plays Elena, Sonya’s new stepmother in the play, said. “It’s fascinating on how changing the phrasing changes the meaning of the line.”

Related: Riverside Theater brings Henry IV to the stage 

As actors, Hahn and Budd explained how the cast worked around a table for quite some time in the early rehearsals to better understand not just the plot of Vanya, but also their characters.

“It’s a great opportunity for the actors to sit around and talk about what’s going on in a moment,” Hahn said. “It’s a very collaborative part of the process and is a chance to explore the text before we get it in our bones.”

Both of the seasoned actors have performed in many productions of Chekhov’s works and have since found many aspects of the Russian’s writings that are universal. The way subtext is used in his dialogue to show feelings without saying what they are really feeling, said Budd.

“I’ll complain about how hot I am or how tired I am but really, I’m dissatisfied because I’m lonely,” Budd said.

Another aspect is the way Chekhov’s characters react to what others say to them, even when they don’t necessarily have a verbal response in the script, Hahn said.

“The action is not just the person who’s talking in Chekhov,” Hahn said. “I’m excited for the audience to come to it and check out the actors in the scenes who aren’t talking.”

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