Vanya by Tom Wood
It is an oppressively hot afternoon in August
Nana, a native woman, sits in the shade on the porch, sorting Saskatoon berries from the
leaves and stems
She smokes a hand rolled cigarette
Michael Astroff paces under a tree
NANA: Michael? (pause) Michael, you want something to drink?
MICHAEL: I beg your pardon?
MICHAEL: No, thank you, Nana. It's too hot.
NANA: A shot of whiskey, maybe?
MICHAEL: No. (smiles at her) You think I've become an old souse,
don't you? (after a moment) How long have we known each other?
NANA: How long? My god ages. I saw ya that first day you come up
here. What was that, a year after the war?
MICHAEL: A little more than that.
NANA: Sonya's mother was still alive, god bless her. She passed on
in the fall of 20, an' you come to the house, first time, that
MICHAEL: So nine years?
NANA: Nine years, sounds 'bout right.
MICHAEL: You think I've changed a lot since then?
NANA: Dear God, yes. Ya used to be handsome as hell. 'Didn't drink
as much either.
MICHAEL: No, I didn't. I feel like a different man. I'm old. Just
like that- old. But it figures I'm working all the time. Always
on my feet. Can't sleep. Most nights I lie awake waiting to be
hauled out to tend to someone. Would you believe, Nana, in the last
nine years, I haven't had a real day off. Not one. I defy anyone in
my shoes not to grow old. (catches himself) I guess I'm just
I'm bored. I'm boring. My life up here is so. mind-numbing.
I'm run ragged and at the same time bored senseless. But, it
suffocates you: the life; the people… Most folks you meet up here,
are so damn dull. And odd… odd but not interesting, you know.
Peculiar. Narrow minded. Everyone. And I've become just as odd as
any of them. An old eccentric. Well look at this stupid moustache
I've grown. Can't be helped, I suppose, 'rubs off on you. Thank
god I can still think straight. Though maybe I'd be better off if my
mind went. Perhaps if I was a little duller, I wouldn't feel so
But that's just it, isn't it. "Numb". I feel numb. I can think
but I don't feel anything. That's the problem. I don't I
can't remember the last time I wanted anything or felt for anyone
liked or, god forbid, lovedanyone. Except for you, of course, Nana.
NANA: Why don't I make you something to eat?
MICHAEL: No. Thanks. You know in March I was on the reservation
helping the nuns with the influenza outbreak. Dozens of tar paper
shacks, and tents, crammed with the sick. Fever and filth and vomiting
and diarrhea. Stench, smoke. Some of those folks lying in blankets on
dirt floors; with their animals. Dogs, calves, even pigs. Horrible
conditions. Three days we'd been tending to them. Not a moment's
rest. Never sat down. Hardly ate a thing. And then the third night the
railroad brought in one of their switchman. His legs were crushed.
They knew he'd never make it to town so they brought him there to
me. We laid him out on the table and just as I started to operate, he
up and dies on me under the chloroform. Bang- just like that- when I
thought I had no feelings left, I fell apart. I cried like a kid. I
felt such terrible guilt. As if I'd killed him on purpose. 'Course
I knew better, but I couldn't help feeling responsible. Ashamed.
Later, I thought, what's the use. Why bother about anything.
Anybody. (pause) I wonder, Nana- I wonder if people in fifty years-a
hundred years time- people for whom this country is being opened up- I
wonder if they'll care- or give us a second thought- a kind word or
even remember us. I don't believe they will. I don't believe
they'll give a damn.
NANA: People might not, but God will.
MICHAEL: (smiles at her) I suppose.
Vanya comes out of the screen door onto the porch. He has had a nap
after lunch and looks all puffy and rumpled. He adjusts his clothes
and his smart new tie. He looks around for someone.
VANYA: (seeing Michael) How long have you been here?
MICHAEL: About an hour. You been sleeping?
VANYA: Yeah, (yawns). Everything's ass backwards now the professor
and his wife descended on us. I sleep when I shouldn't- I'm
wide awake when I should be sleeping. We eat too much. Much too late.
An' of course the wine flows like water and the brandy and god knows
what all. Before he showed up, it seemed we never had a second to sit
down. Sonya and I were always working, a thousand things to do, never
enough time to do 'em. But now she's slaving away by her lonesome
while I sleep. Or eat or drink. It's pathetic.
NANA: And the professor don't get up 'til noon, so we don't eat
a real breakfast. When he wants his breakfast we're ready for lunch.
Then he won't eat supper 'til after eight at night when we're
all ready for bed. At one in the morning he wants me to make him tea.
It's a big mess.
MICHAEL: How long are they staying?
VANYA: Another hundred years. God! He's decided he wants to live
NANA: (having lifted the cozy off the teapot) 'Tea's cold. Orders
tea then he up and goes for a walk. (she begins to rise)
VANYA: (straightening his clothes) They're here. They're back.
Don't bother with that, he can drink it cold.
Nana sits back down. We hear the voices of the Professor, Sonya and
Waffles as they enter from another part of the yard.
PROFESSOR: Beautiful. Beautiful. Charming and rugged.
WAFFLES: Yep, it is. It's quite something, sir.
SONYA: Dad, maybe tomorrow I can show you the new quarter section.
VANYA: Tea's ready.
PROFESSOR: Would you mind sending it to my room. I have some reading I
SONYA: Uncle Vanya bought it for song. It's got a big creek 'runs
through and some natural pasture.
The Professor and Sonya enter the house.
VANYA: Jesus, coat, hat, gloves. He thinks he's come to the artic.
MICHAEL: Taking care of himself, I guess.
VANYA: A walk's a big deal for him. Usually he just farts around in
his room and pretends to write. He.
Elena enters from the same direction and walks up the stairs into the house
A meadowlark sings
The men are silent. Then:
VANYA: Isn't she something! You ever see a woman that beautiful?
WAFFLES: It's a great day to be alive, eh. Don't you think, Nana?
The wheat is high. The sun's out, the birds are singing. All's
right as rain. Is that tea?
VANYA: She takes my breath away.
MICHAEL: (after a pause) How's your mother, Van?
VANYA: Hasn't she swooped down to preach at you yet?
Michael shakes his head.
VANYA: You're lucky. Ah, you know, she's still running off at the
mouth about her rights. "The rights of women". One foot in the
grave and all she does is bitch and holler about how she's not
legally considered "a person". Well she's absolutely right-
she's not a person, she's a goddamned old bat.
WAFFLES: (offended) Ah, come on.
MICHAEL: What's the professor working on?
VANYA: More bullshit about art, I suppose. He'd be better off
writing his autobiography. That'd be a real page turner. A dried out
old gout ridden academic- his liver bloated with bitterness- retires,
invades his daughter, his in-laws- uninvited- then complains
incessantly that he's stuck in the boonies, against his will he
can't afford to live back east, you see. So day in, day out, he
whines about his bad luck. My ass. He's got more luck than Carter
has pills. Born dirt poor, trained as a priest, never ordained,
emigrated over here, married my sister, carted her back east, at fifty
he stumbles into a university education, becomes a professor and
he's been sermonizing about art for the last twenty five years.
Twenty five years he regurgitates other people's ideas about,
realism, naturalism that sort of crap. He's spent his life
spewing what intelligent people already know and what stupid people
couldn't give a good god damn about. Wasting everyone's time and
energy. And still, this gasbag has the gall to strut around here like
some puffed up little prick!
WAFFLES: Oh, come on now.
MICHAEL: You sound jealous.
VANYA: Yeah? Sure. Who wouldn't be? He's gotten on without a fly
speck of talent. And his luck with the ladies unbelievable.
Valentino would be jealous. My sister Cathy- his first wife- well you
know-a gentle, intelligent woman, with more admirers than he's had
students- she loved him; adored him. I can't figure it. The old bat,
idolizes him, - hangs on his every word- constantly kissing his
puckered ass. And this second wife, she's smart and not too hard on
the eyes- well your blind if you didn't notice- she married him when
he was already that shriveled up old carcass. She throws away her
youth, her beauty, her freedom, her brilliance on that dusty old turd.
And for what?
MICHAEL: She's faithful to him?
MICHAEL: Why do you say that?
VANYA: Well what's worse: infidelity or suicide?
MICHAEL: How'd you mean?
VANYA: It's obvious he disgusts her.
WAFFLES: Oh, come on.
VANYA: She can't stand to look at him.
WAFFLES: Don't talk like that, Van.
VANYA: But rather than do anything about it, she's decided to
sacrifice her own life, her true feelings. Her youth. It's a crying
shame, 'you ask me.
WAFFLES: I know you don't mean that. Anyone who could cheat on their
wife or husband like that is ais terrible. In my book eh, a cheat
is a cheat and can't be trusted in anything.
VANYA: Shut up, Waffles, nobody asked you.
WAFFLES: You don't know what it's like to have your wife run off
with another man
VANYA: Oh God, here we go.
WAFFLES: Mine run off the day after I come back from the war. She'd
already been seein' this other fellow when I was over there
fightin' but then when she gets a load of what happened to my face,
she up an leaves. But I never failed in my duty towards her. I still
love her; I'm faithful to her. I help her out as much as I can. I
sold everything I had to help educate her kids, their kids. She
cheated me out of everything. Bein' happy, an everything- but I
still have my pride. But her? She's old now and worn out and her
boyfriend's passed away. So what's she got left?
Sonya and Elena enter and a little later, Vera. Vera sits down and reads
They hand her some tea which she takes without looking at it.
SONYA: Nana, some folks from the reservation are out back. I can't
make out what they want. Would you go? I'll take care of the tea.
Nana exits, Elena takes her cup of tea and sits in the swing.
MICHAEL: I'm the Doctor you
ELENA: Yes, I know.
MICHAEL: Michael. I came over here to see your husband. Someone
telephoned my neighbor and said to tell me he was very sick
ELENA: That was me.
MICHAEL: Rheumatism and something else, but apparently he seems to be
ELENA: He was depressed and complained of pain in his legs, but today,
you're right, he's much better.
MICHAEL: And so I gallop all the way over here for nothing.
ELENA: Well, last night he
MICHAEL: It's alright. It's not the first time.
SONYA: Michael, why don't you stay for dinner?
MICHAEL: I'd enjoy that, believe me, but
SONYA: Then do. Stay the night if you can. If you'd like.
MICHAEL: Well, I don't think I can spare the time. I mean, I
VANYA: She's the boss. I guess you're staying.
MICHAEL: I suppose this way I can get some rest.
SONYA: Can I get you something to eat now? We won't be having dinner
until quite late.
MICHAEL: I'm fine.
SONYA: The tea's cold.
WAFFLES: Sure is. It's been cold for some time.
ELENA: It doesn't matter, Mr. Willis, we can drink it cold.
WAFFLES: Excuse me, but I'm not Mr. Willis, I'm Bill or Will. Bill
Williams. William Williams or Waffles. That's what folks around here
call me. Waffles, cause of the shrapnel. I work here. I live here. I
eat every meal with you if you don't know. If you haven't even
SONYA: Here, I'll get you some more tea.
WAFFLES: Never mind.
SONYA: Waffles is our right hand man. We couldn't get anything done
ELENA: I'm sorry, I
SONYA: What's the matter, grandma?
VERA: I forgot to tell Alexander I'm losing my memory. I got a
pamphlet yesterday from Mrs. Murphie's office.
MICHAEL: This is that police magistrate woman?
VERA: Yes. Among other things.
VANYA: Don't get her started. You'll never turn her off.
VERA: Now that the Supreme Court's declared that we women are not
legally persons, she intends to go over their heads, to take this all
the way to the British Privy Council
VERA: in London. She's confident that
VANYA: Mother, drink your tea.
VERA: You drink your tea, I want to talk.
VANYA: You've been talking non-stop now for fifty years. Talking and
talking and pushing your pamphlets down our throats…
VERA: Maybe I wouldn't have to if you'd listen once in awhile. You
resent us; you really don't want us to be equal with you.
VANYA: You know damn well that's not true. I've always believed
women should have
VERA: What? What should we have?
VANYA: What's the use?
VERA: You tell me.
VANYA: I don't resent women, I resent you- talkingblabbering on
VERA: You've changed so much in the last year. I swear I don't
recognize you. You used to be so idealistic about everything, so positive.
VANYA: Positively horseshit. "Idealism"? Just another way to
distract myself, like you with your "causes"; distract myself from
seeing my life. My real life! You know, I imagined I was doing so
well. But, then I wake up. I'm fifty-four years old, still living
with my mother and I don't sleep most nights from the utter
VERA: Don't curse.
VANYA: and rage.
VERA: At what?
VANYA: At what?! At what!!? At my stupidity. My heart breaking
stupidity. Stupidly letting my life slip through my hands. I could
have had anything. Been anything. Now I'm past it and I don't have
a hope in hell
SONYA: Uncle Vanya, stop this. It's boring. We have company.
VERA: If things haven't turned out your way, you've got no one to
blame but yourself. I never made you do anything you didn't want to.
You can't expect to have the world handed to you on a plate. People
work for what they get.
VANYA: Sure, like your precious Professor!
VERA: What's that supposed to mean?
VANYA: Ah, shut your mouth and open
SONYA: Grandma! Vanya! Stop it!
VANYA: Sorry. I'm sorry.
ELENA: It's not as hot today. Hot, but not as hot as yesterday.
Waffles has picked up the guitar. He plays a popular country tune.
Sonya sings a little, in snatches, but then also stops. All listen in
silence. Nana enters.
SONYA: What did those people want, Nana?
NANA: 'Wanted to know if we had any work for 'em. I told 'em to
come back next month. Oh and Michael there's a guy from the grain
elevator come to get you.
MICHAEL: Did he say what it was?
NANA: An accident, somebody fell.
MICHAEL: Thank you. I'll be right there.
SONYA: We'll hold dinner for you.
MICHAEL: No. Thank you, but it'll be too late. I'll be closer to
home out there. But Nana, I wouldn't say no to that whiskey, now.
Where's my hat? What was I thinking, "get some rest". This is
better anyway, I won't feel guilty. If you ever feel the urge to
come visit, you and Sonya, it'd be a pleasure to show you around.
Really. I have a small farm, nothing like this, about thirty acres, it
has an experimental garden and a nursery, if that interests you. That
sort of thing. All around me for miles is government forest. The
forester passed away three years ago and I've been managing it.
ELENA: Yes, I've heard you're very woodsy. I imagine whatever it
is you do it's extremely valuable but doesn't it take you away
from your real profession?
MICHAEL: Who says the forest isn't my real profession?
ELENA: Is it interesting?
VANYA: (ironically) Fascinating!
ELENA: You're what? Thirty-six? Thirty-seven?
ELENA: You're still a young man. I can't fathom how nothing but
trees and trees, more trees- would strike you as anything but
SONYA: Every year, Michael, plants acres of saplings and works to keep
the local farmers from cutting down their old stands. He was awarded a
diploma and a silver plaque for..
SONYA: (nods)(then) He feels that the forests beautify the earth, and
teach us to appreciate the natural world, and inspire us. Forests make
our harsh climate milder. In a mild climate you spend less effort
struggling with nature and so man can become gentler; people are more
beautiful and sensitive in spirit. Their language is more elegant and
their movement more graceful. Their science and fine arts blossom.
VANYA: (chuckling) Shit.
SONYA: Their philosophy is hopeful; they have a greater refinement and
courtesy towards women…
VANYA: Jesus Christ, Michael that's all very sweet and sincere but
how' we gonna keep from freezing our asses in the winter and how do
we build our barns? What heats your tea?
MICHAEL: There's plenty of peat moss to burn in our stoves and field
stone to build with. Alright, I admit we need to use some wood but why
wipe out everything? Clear some land for our crops, sure, but in
harmony with nature. In the name of breaking the land, we level- we
destroy the woods. Our axes, lay waste to the homes of wild animals
and birds. The creeks and rivers are dwindling and some of them drying
up. Wonderful landscapes Vanish, landscapes that we'll never see
again. The climate is being ruined and the earth is getting poorer and
uglier day by day- and all because we're too lazy or stupid to bend
down and pick up the fuel from the ground. (to Elena) Don't you
think? I mean we're savages to burn all this beauty in our stoves
and destroy what we can't create. We're supposed to be creatures
of reason and creativity. We're supposed to cherish and multiply
what's been given to us but all we seem to do is take and tear down.
(to Vanya) Don't look at me like that.
MICHAEL: You think I'm a crank.
VANYA: I didn't say a word.
MICHAEL: I don't know, maybe I am. But when I walk in the woods and
pass a stand of fir or poplar that I've saved from the axe or when I
hear the rustling leaves of young trees I've planted with my own
hands, I feel that I've done something. That the climate is, to some
little extent, in my control. And if people are happy a hundred years
from now, I'll be a small part of that. God, when I plant a birch
and see it explode into green and wave in the wind, I want to burst
with pride because I know that
Nana enters with Michael's hat and a shot of whiskey.
MICHAEL: AnywayThank you, Nana. Cheers. (drinks) Time to go. Well
Van, you're probably right, I am a crank. (to Vanya) Do you think I
should breakdown and buy an automobile? Anyway, goodbye. Pleasure
meeting you. Goodbye.
All: Goodbye. See you. etc
Nana walks into the house
Vanya goes up onto the porch as Michael picks up his black bag and begins to leave
Sonya follows him and takes his arm
SONYA: When are we going to see you again?
MICHAEL: Oh, I don't know. Maybe next month. The Semchuk girl's
expecting round about the tenth, so chances are I'll be out this
SONYA: Don't stay away too long.
Michael and Sonya exit into the house. Elena moves onto the porch
Vera and Waffles remain at the table under the tree
ELENA: Don't talk to me.
VANYA: What? What did I do now?
ELENA: You just can't resist, can you? Any opportunity to behave
badly. You have to provoke your mother. And that crack about
ELENA: "Your precious professor". So she enjoys his company, so
what?! Why shouldn't she? You don't talk to her. And did you have
to pick a fight with Alexander?
ELENA: At lunch. That was so small of you.
VANYA: I can't help it if I hate him.
ELENA: You've no reason to hate him. What's he ever done to you?
You're really very much alike, you two. I, I I just YouOh,
what's the use.
VANYA: I wish you could see yourself. That long face. The way you
trudge around here. Like everyone, everything's so boring. You know,
if your life is such an effort why don't you do something
ELENA: You know what's boring? The way you and everyone else
constantly blame my husband, and pity me. "Poor thing, she's got
such an old husband. She must be so unhappy." Oh, I understand your
pity. It's just what the Doctor said, the same way you ruin your
forests- so that there's nothing left but ugliness- you won't be
satisfied until you ruin any faithfulness, or loyalty or integrity, or
capacity for sacrifice. You can't look at us women with any kind of
neutrality unless, of course, we're yours. We're like these woods
to you, you want to own us, so you can cut us down. You have no real
pity for the forest, or birds, or women, or each other.
VANYA: God, you've been reading too much of the old bat's
Waffles begins playing another country tune. This one is a ballad.
ELENA: That doctor looks tired. He's got such asensitive face.
Interesting face. Sonya's smitten that's obvious. I can see why. I
think I must have seemed cold. I felt so guilty about him having to
come all this way and (pause) Well, anyway Maybe that's the
reason you and I get along so well, we're both downright
anti-social. Boring old so-and so's. Oh, don't look at me like
that. You know I hate it.
VANYA: How else can I look at you? I love you. You're my only joy,
ELENA: Stop it.
VANYA: I don't expect you to .return my feelings. I don't. But
just let me look at you, and listen to you and
ELENA: Shhhhhh. (indicating Vera and Waffles)(She begins to move into
VANYA: Just hear me out. Just let me run off at the mouth for a
minute. That'd be enough for me.
ELENA: Oh god, this is unbearable.
Elena exits into the house with Vanya on her heels
Vera makes some notes in the margin of her pamphlet
Waffles finishes his tune[end of extract]