Nietzsche advised marrying a good conversationalist as insurance against the boredom of old age. He would not, therefore, have recommended hanging out with the foursome of This Was The End, director Mallory Catlett’s geriatric riff on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. With a formidable cast of award-winning older actors, Catlett has thrown Vanya, Sonya, Astrov and Yelena into a time-machine from which they emerge at least twenty years older, but still trapped in the same regrets, frustrations and stultifying situations that their younger selves faced. If Vanya wondered how to overhaul his life so as not to regret it when he turned sixty, This Was the End provides the bleak answer: inaction rules or as Sonya repeats at play’s end: “We rest, we rest…”
The actors in this tightly condensed version of the play are not taking it easy, however; they run in great loops around the stage and wander restlessly through a set of heavy doors they have to push open and slide shut, they brawl and wring each other’s necks, and they even (we are made to understand) have sex behind one of those doors, something Chekhov’s characters are never bold enough to do. Yet, their action belies a perceptible sense of deterioration, evident in their absent-minded states of undress. Vanya (Paul Zimet ) and Sonya (Black-Eyed Susan) look like they never leave the house: he in a faded bathrobe that flaps around skinny arms and legs and she in a skirt slip, an old sweater and baggy socks. Astrov (James Himelsbach) is pitiful in a cossack hat and black coat over long underwear while Yelena (Rae C Wright) could have stepped out of a daguerrotype, still elegant but faintly ridiculous in formal black next to the others. Communicated by these frail bodies and potentially failing minds, the lethargy and immobility that paralyze everyone in Uncle Vanya take on new meaning, as the quartet obsessively, but tiredly, heaves at the same exits, counts and recounts pill bottles, and flings recriminations at one another.
Clearly, time’s passage has barred the few avenues that Chekhov’s characters might once have tried. The just perceptible disjunct between their younger and older iterations is emphasized by Peter Ksander’s multimedia set and video by Keith Skretch; partnered with Catlett’s direction, they superimpose a repeating series of slightly blurred images of the actors engaging in the same repetitive activities. DJ G. Lucas Crane contributes to this ghost tag, adding sound layers with an analogue tape deck but his frenetic presence as he pounds away at the buttons is above all another reminder of youth contrasted with age, action with inaction.
It is the country doctor, Astrov, who perceives the future that becomes the basis for Catlett’s reading of the play: “Life holds nothing for me,” he intones. “My race is run. I am old, I am tired. I am trivial; my sensibilities are dead.” Nothing changes in Uncle Vanya and so neither in This Was The End, except for a perhaps more brooding sense of discontent faced with the irrecoverable past. Catlett weaves a poignant meditation on aging while magnifying pertinently Chekhov’s themes of lives spent fruitlessly and the painful mourning of these.