Artists Repertory Theatre's much-anticipated, William Hurt-anchored production of Vanya opened last Friday to a packed house.

Artistic Director Allen Nause assembled a cast the likes of which we rarely see in Portland, including the aforementioned Oscar winner, prolific Native American actress Sheila Tousey, Portland favorite Valerie Stevens, Australian soap star Krista Vendy and Nause himself. Throw in a sublimely beautiful script by Canadian playwright Tom Woods and the rock-solid direction of JoAnn Johnson, and you have the makings of one amazing production. Or you should, anyway.

Woods' adaptation sets Chekhov's story of love, arrogance, and desperation in the newly tamed wilds of 1920s Alberta, where the lives of depressed farmer Vanya (Nause) and his niece, Sonya (Stevens), have been overturned by the arrival of Sonya's aging father and his languid, twentysomething second wife, Elena (Vendy). Vanya falls head over heels for Elena, as does Michael (Hurt), the overworked local doctor on whom Sonya has doted, unsuccessfully, for years. As you can imagine, things don't come out well in the end.

Hurt lives up to his reputation, bringing the frustrated, passionate, alcoholic Michael to life so successfully that, during his sad, stuttering tirades on the value of wilderness and the dullness of country life, the audience achieves total suspension of disbelief. Stevens, an attractive woman who has gotten very good at looking tired and unwanted, gives a fine performance, as does Nause.

There is, indeed, only one problem with Vanya: The central conflict of the play requires the audience to believe that Elena is the sort of woman that two reasonable men would risk friendship and good reputation to woo. While Vendy has the looks the role requires, her performance starts off on a note of surly irritation that she holds, stubbornly, through the last scene. She comes off more like a pouty 12-year-old than an idle young woman, and it's difficult to imagine that even the randiest old bachelor could find any charm in her.

From her variable accent to the lilting whine with which she delivers her lines, Vendy's presence onstage drives the show dangerously close to farce. How could Johnson have possibly chosen her over all the acting talent in Portland? Well, perhaps if we consider that she was Hurt's date to the Oscars last year, this miscasting makes sense, but, if that's why she's in this play, Hurt has really hurt himself and his fellow actors.


Artists Repertory Theatre Main Stage, 1516 SW Alder St., 241-1278. 7 pm Wednesdays, 2 and 7 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 pm Sundays. Closes Feb. 25. $24-$65.