| Stage |

Uncle Vanya by Classical Theatre Company: Gentle, Hilarious and Sad

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The setup:

Throughout theater's long history, Anton Chekhov wrote the most famous gunshot. It happens at the end of Act III of this most gentle, hilarious and sad play (1899) and ushers in the 20th century with a disruptive comic violence that still amazes. Every character in this marvelous comedy/drama -- presented in a stunningly perceptive and heartfelt production from Classical Theatre Company -- is weighted with regret and chained to the past with an overpowering force of inertia. Each of them is, in turn, sad, wistful, full of passion, useless, mired in ennui and, like Vanya (Philip Lehl), who chases old professor Serebryakov (Carl Masterson) through the house, a very bad shot.

The execution:

None of them needs pistols to show us how wildly out-of-sync the eye-hand coordination is. Illusions keep these country folk alive; even the respect they have for each other is illusory, based upon false judgment and a moral nearsightedness. They are inept in love as in living, and the heart fails them as often as the brain. Chekhov's evanescent plot -- revered, sickly Serebryakov and young wife Helena move into daughter Sonia's estate, run by Vanya for decades without thanks or much compensation, and wreak havoc among all -- is solidly anchored by his rich array of characters who are as finely etched as any drawing by Rembrandt.

Things might change in this world if somebody did something, but life according to Chekhov has a funny way of sweeping all things asunder. His people are in love, they're out of love; they hate each other, they embrace warmly after a slug of vodka; they fall for the wrong person, or they don't fall at all. The hay rots in the field, and nobody will get out of the house and save the harvest. One moment we laugh at their pathetic antics, until the very next moment flattens us -- and them -- with one radiantly detailed outburst that makes us weep for the human condition. It's all ephemeral, and yet so full of life that the stage bursts.

It's a delicate balance of the comedy and ineffable melancholy that Chekhov evokes, and Classical delivers. The exquisite cast catches every nuance, every held breath, every side glance. Along with a stunning Lehl and blustery Masterson, the cast is damn near flawless: Eva Laporte (lovesick yet temperate Sonia), David Matranga (the country doctor resigned to loving nature over people), Tracie Thomason (icy and bored Helena), Terri Branda Carter (practical housemaid Marina), S.A. Rogers (toady dependent Telegin) and Julie Oliver (obtuse matriarch Marya).

As if not to overshadow Chekhov's penetrating look into the human heart, Classical's production is toned down but decorous, with the barest outline of a set designed and lit by Matt Schlief, balanced by Margaret Crowley's apt costuming and Ed Kliman's atmospheric music and sound effects. The entire show is woven by director John Houchin into a satisfying picture that will stay with you for weeks to come.

The verdict:

Chekhov's timeless tapestry, full of indelible color and detail, is strong as a suspension bridge. Vanya deserves the "classic" label, and so does this illuminating production.

Chekhov's sad and comic masterpiece runs through January 22 at Talento Bilingüe de Houston, 333 S. Jensen Drive. Purchase tickets online at classicaltheatre.org or call 713-963-9665. $8-$18.

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