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Direct Emotions, Obstructed Views

by Ralph Hammann on August 8, 2012

A Month in the Country
By Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, directed by Richard Nelson Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 19



In keeping with its reputation for producing Russian plays, the WTF has dusted off a classic with the world premiere of a new translation that reveals it to be as timely as it was when written in the 1850s. The bucolic title promises rest, sunshine, relaxation and easy breaths of clean air. What Turgenev serves up, however, is angst, deceit, frustration, and unfulfilled desires. It is, of course, a love story, but of the most rueful order. It is also a comedy, albeit an existential one.

Indeed, just at the top of the play’s second half, the main character, Natalya, asks, “What is there to live for?” When we first meet her, she is a graven-faced beauty of 29 years who is bored in her marriage to an older man, Arkady, who seems more interested in his farm equipment than his wife. She is attended by Mikhail, an intellectual family friend, whose yearning love for her is not returned and, worse yet, often unheard. And there is young, strapping Alexei, an innocent tutor, for whom Natalya finds herself burning with ever more consuming desire that will eventually ruin several lives.

Add to the mix, Natalya’s 17-year-old ward, Vera, who is infatuated with Alexei; Afansy, a nervous and sweaty neighbor who desires Vera, but is unsuitable for her; and Ignaty, a cynical doctor who simply wishes to have a practical marriage to the demure Lizaveta, a companion to Arkady’s mother. Mercifully, the intrigues and exotic names are easily followed in both the translation and the playing by as an assured set of actors to ever navigate the intricacies of Russian drama at the WTF.

It is a pity that director Richard Nelson and his set, sound and lighting designers have chosen to present the cast’s admirable naturalistic acting in a bleak, unadorned setting that revels in exposing the artifice of the theater. It is played on a semi-thrust that is flanked by what appears to be the theater’s fire curtain and another skirted border curtain. A few chairs and tables and 16 hanging microphones constitute the rest of the setting which is lit too-often from above, casting shadows over actors’ eyes. The microphones are an attempt to allow the actors to speak their lines naturally and to give the audience the effect that it is eavesdropping on the conversations. Sometimes it works. Frequently, it distances us as lines lose a certain musicality and seem phoned in despite earnest performances throughout. While the production team seems to think that this is a cinematic effect, it doesn’t work that way in the theater.

The thrust only allows for some fifty or sixty people to sit on the sidelines, while the vast majority of the audience sits out front, often striving to see actors who are blocked to play to three sides. The staging, itself, has variety but often lapses into awkwardness where one actor with his or her back to the audience obscures another key actor in the scene. We hear the words as though we are behind a door, spying the action. This may be the desired effect, but it is woefully undramatic and actually robs us of the intimacy the actors are working so earnestly to achieve.

Despite the shortcomings of the production values, the actors reveal much and, by the end, triumph. Chief among them is Jessica Collins who gives a trenchant performance of Natalya. Commanding the stage, even when in shadow, Collins is by turns appealing, pitiable and dangerous. Delicately delineating the subtext at every turn, perhaps her greatest moments lie in her heartfelt soliloquy where she exposes her soul and seems surprised at what she finds.

Equally affecting in Mikhail’s soliloquy is Jeremy Strong who epitomizes the longing, resignation and even the selfishness of the unrequited lover. Gentle, constant and forgiving, Strong’s Mikhail will be deeply reminiscent of characters Anton Chekhov would later create. A welcome scene of comedy is masterfully played by Sean Cullen, as the most unromantic of lovers, and Elisabeth Waterston, as the most appealingly diffident. Charlotte Bydwell beautifully captures the blush of first love, while Julian Cihi makes his character’s naiveté and subsequent shock entirely plausible. Finally, there is an eleventh hour surprise offered by Louis Cancelmi, who wonderfully underscores the humanity in a hitherto unappealing character.

The production will resound with anyone who has misplaced his or her heart in the wrong lover as well as to anyone who has seen the prospects of youth and romantic love evaporate. As for Nelson’s barebones, almost Beckettian, approach—it is interesting, but is yet another example of a concept hobbling a great play.