`Uncle Vanya' An Intimate, Painstaking Production

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Uncle Vanya." Tonight through Sunday at Freehold Studio, 1525 10th Ave., Seattle. $18-22. 206-568-5893. It also runs July 15-18 at Norton Clapp Theatre, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma. $15. 253-756-3419.

Watching the intimate Art Theatre of Puget Sound mounting of "Uncle Vanya" is, at its best, rather like gazing at the night sky through a extra-high-powered telescope.

Stars that seemed blurry to the naked eye grow clearer. Planets you couldn't see at all become visible.

That's the upside of this unusual production of the Anton Chekhov classic, which has been performed in private living rooms around the Seattle area, and is playing this weekend at Freehold Studio and next at Tacoma's Norton Clapp Theatre.

Staged by Russian director Leonid Anisimov, for audiences limited to 50 patrons or less, it features an ensemble of American actors giving painstaking attention to every line, word and nuance of the script - a level of textural detail rarely seen in American versions of Chekhov.

Adapted into English by Anisimov and Carol Levin, the show runs four hours, with helpful breaks between each act. And it builds a cumulative effect, gathering detail upon detail until one feels the weight of the claustrophobia, yearning and absurdist irony that emanate from Vanya's unhappy Russian household, as its inhabitants sort through their infatuations and frustrations within a few feet of you.

But along with the payoffs of this fine-toothed, intimate approach to Chekhov come a few problems, too.

At times the actors take numbing, quasi-absurdist pauses long enough to drive a horse and cart through.

There are also a few lugubrious choices made and stuck to. One is having Althea Hukari play Vanya's kind old servant Nanny as a lumbering asthmatic, whose steam-shovel breathing is a big distraction.

Another is plunging the dashing, weary, cynical yet visionary physician Astrov (Anthony Lee) into a monochromatic funk which never lifts - even when Astrov falls giddily for Yelena (Thea Mercouffer), the indolent young wife of an insufferable old pedant (Edward Payson Call).

Vanya's mother (Marjorie Nelson) also seems fixed in one perpetually sour key.

More various, compelling and funny are Mark Jenkins' addled Vanya, Tom Spiller's sweet bumbler Waffles, and an unexpected marvel, Annette Toutonghi's Sonya.

Toutonghi often gets cast in wacky comedy or children's theater. Here her high, candied voice and girlish face make the waste and exhaustion of Sonya's goodness seem doubly poignant.

Anisimov's own company, the Chamber Theatre of Vladivostok, works in a style similar to this "Vanya," but with years of practice. This more hastily assembled, cross-cultural production offers indulgences as well as insights, and is most rewarding to the patient.