Jayne Houdyshell has appeared in more than 200 plays in regional theaters around the United States, and, for her work in New York, received five Tony nominations (winning once) and an Obie. Her career has had a near-infinite variety. But she has never appeared professionally in a Chekhov play. Until now, when she is playing Maria, in LCT’s Uncle Vanya.

“It’s about time!” she told me in her dressing room the other day, after a matinee performance. “I did a lot of Chekhov in acting school” --at Oakland University, near Detroit – “but I have had to wait until now for another chance at him.” The playwright’s work, she reflected, “has a great deal of density, which is delicious for actors. The thoughts expressed are very clear – ‘I’m bored,’ ‘I’m elated’ – but the feelings can fluctuate. The emotional content is the river that carries the story, and it’s an ever-changing landscape.”

Maria is the mother of Uncle Vanya. She has lived on the play’s country estate for many years. “She’s an intellectual person,” Houdyshell said. “She’s lived a life of the mind and she’s a genuine activist. It’s mentioned, but I don’t know how much the audience clocks it, that her husband was a Senator, so she’s spent her life near government. Her husband is dead but she’s continued her activist life – Sonia has picked that up from her. Vanya was like that as a younger man, but he’s become more cynical, sadder.”

I mentioned that the play’s Professor, off in the city, for years sent his articles to Vanya and Maria for evaluation. “In my mind,” Houdyshell said, “the Professor and Maria are contemporaries. It’s even possible they went to university together. It’s not a coincidence that he married my daughter.”

Houdyshell’s previous LCT credit came with Paul Rudnick’s The New Century, in the Mitzi E. Newhouse space. She finds the Vivian Beaumont, where Uncle Vanya resides, as “a grand place to play.” She added, “I was explaining to a friend of mine, who has been in the New York theater her entire life but never at the Beaumont, what makes it different from the Broadway theaters with their prosceniums, small dressing rooms, and minimal backstage area. We have a lot more space here, and the Beaumont has stadium seating.”

It's a configuration very familiar to Houdyshell. “I spent the first 25 years of my life in the business working in regional theaters. Many of them were built in the 1960s with a thrust stage – like the Beaumont. So this space feels wonderful and lovely. And it’s expansive enough to change radically depending on the production.”

Houdyshell’s character in Uncle Vanya has not changed radically over the years. This path contrasts with that of a certain intellectual whose latest essay Maria says she has just read. Maria comments, “That crusty old dinosaur is attacking the same ideas he was marching for fifty years ago!” Houdyshell observed, “Maria is still committed to her youthful ideologies.” What’s more, the actress said, “Maria does not go through a significant change in identity from the beginning to the end of the play – unlike the other characters. But she’s as deeply human as they are.”

Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.