A Month in the Countryby Ivan Turgenev in a new translation by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevar and Larissa Volokhonsky. Directed by Richard Nelson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It could happen to anyone. . .a cloud drifts across the sky."
The music in the Russian language is transformed in translation to banal stage English and always sounds a false note. Until now. In this early realism play by Ivan Turgenev, "A Month in the Country," language accentuates character and characters drive plot points. Unlike so many productions of the plays of Anton Chekhov, including some on the Williamstown stage in the past, there has always been an awkward sense of "drive" or of rhythms pushed way beyond the reasonable. After all, these characters are Russian and are nineteenth century or early twentieth century people for whom a rush is rising slowly from an afternoon nap to languidly read a newspaper while sipping an iced tea and watching ducks fly over the pond, an activity which never even inspires the hunting dog to bark or get up and point.
This play is a true bucolic. It is redolent of fields and swaying hay and long, lazy afternoons and evenings at the spinet. Talk replaces action and the occasional flight from a room with agitation is no more startling than the song of a lark might be at sunset. Essentially the story is this: two men decide to leave the home of a woman whose husband doesn’t care if they stay or go. Stretch. Yawn. Stretch again.
Unlike other directors in the past Richard Nelson, directing his own, new translation of this 1849 play set almost a decade earlier, understands the peculiar rhythms and patterns of the Russian country folk, not serfs, but several classes above them, who move through their days like hippies of the 1960s; they might get up to smoke a joint and then move at their own, definitive pace to consume a box of cornflakes (Chekhov clearly studied at Turgenev’s legendary feet). In part because of this the company at the Williamstown Theatre Festival feel like contemporary college students, all very talented but all from a uniform standpoint - a mutual teacher who directs, for example, who are age challenged in some of the roles.
In program notes Nelson points out that older actors, star actors, have generally taken on this play and that this often distorts the play for the audience. Here, the players are all about the same ages and play the men and women as written. Since the oldest man, known as the old man, is intended to be 48 years old and the heroine only 29, her husband 33 and the man she loves about 21, a young company is highly appropriate here. However, this does add to that dim illusion of a college acting class taking on the play.
The last time I saw it, the heroine was played by Helen Mirren who, seemingly, has never been 29 years old and the family friend who falls in love with her was played by Ron Rifkin it is something of a revelation to come upon a cast like this one. Even the first American production in 1930 starred a middle-aged Alla Nazimova who had been a star in New York for over twenty years.
Natalia Petrovna Isaev, the heroine, is played here by Jessica Collins. Her husband Arkady is played by Louis Cancelmi. Arkady has all the intensity of an indulgent and understanding mate who will allow his wife leeway in her relationships and Cancelmi plays this with a slight underlying growl. It emerges in his voice and sometimes in his walk and always in his backward glances in her direction. You can feel it even when it is unspoken. Collins as the heroine discovering the feelings of love and their deadfall is dry and flaky and as crusty as can be when she confronts her two potential lovers. For the younger one she displays a coy and teasing manner that always gives her the advantage and for the older one she is intelligent to a fault and he adores her for her mind more than for her body. She has a difficult job, setting the play’s entire tone in her dull first scene with nothing important said and nothing inferred. As she opens the play outward to accept other characters things become increasingly demanding on her and she handles this all extremely well and professionally.
Charlotte Bydwell plays Vera, Natalia’s adult ward and Elisabeth Waterston plays her companion. As romances come and go these two women fall into place without much fuss and do what they can to complicate matters for the heroine. Bydwell is a bit too cocky at times, but she is younger than the others and cocky could be the ticket. Waterston plays Lizaveta with complete control over the internal thought process of her character. Both women make their characters compelling.
Rakitin, the family friend with the yen for Natalia and Belyaev the student summer teaching Natalya’s son Kolya are played by Jeremy Strong and Julian Cihi. Kolya is in the hands of Parker Bell-Devaney. All three, with their demands on the attention and affections of Natalia, are well played in this edition.
Turgenev gives his characters pronouncements throughout the play, statements that can not be refuted and which give characters the opportunity to reveal a secret without reason. "I’ve never been young, since my childhood," Natalia announces in revealing the awful truth of an early marriage and the losses incurred in such a decision. Another character who might make the same statement is Doctor Shpigelsky, played here by Sean Cullen in an almost ageless manner. This character is sleazy and untrustworthy and Collins’ plays this for all she is worth. Cullen takes the defensive and is somewhat offensive doing it, which is just perfect.
Nelson’s version robs the script of two characters, but leaves the neighbor who would wed himself into this wealthy crowd and that man is played nicely, if smarmily, by Paul Anthony McGrane.
Physically the production is fascinating to watch on the new three-quarter thrust stage built for it in the theater. Nelson manipulates his company into an ever-present state; they change the set; they observe the action; they are never far from home. Takeshi Kata is responsible for the arrangement of space, Susan Hilferty for the utilitarian costumes and Japhy Weideman for the well-wrought lighting. Drew Levy helps the play move along with an expert sound design plot.
All in all, this is a performance of rare beauty and simplicity, never pushed or pulled, never rushed or exploited. The company of non-star performers bring a time and a way of life to effervescent luminosity and when the play is over and the world has abandoned on stage a single individual, not the heroine, the moment seems almost perfect. This is a job well done.
A Month in the Country plays through August 19 at the main stage of the ‘62 Centre for Theatre and Dance located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA, summer home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For information and tickets call 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.