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A Month In The Country
By Elyse Sommer
Having paid tribute to Chekhov with productions of his best and most popular plays, Ivan Turgenev's A Month In the Country has all the earmarks of a continuation of their love affair with all things Chekhovian: The setting is a nineteenth century country estate. The beautiful, bored wife of the emotionally out to lunch estate owner is carrying on a flirtatious friendship with a family friend more witty than her husband. Also frequently on scene is the local doctor.
Actually for all the stylistic kinship, Turgenev (1808-1883) and Chekhov (1860-1904) were a generation apart. They also came from different backgrounds (Turgenev grew up wealthy, whereas Chekhov was born poor and actually was a practicing doctor as well as a playwright).
Turgenev wrote A Month in the Country in 1847, years before the serfs were emancipated. Thus his landowners still enjoyed the isolated grandeur of Russian country life, unlike Chekhov's 1890s gentry who generally had to deal with their changed social and financial situations. Nor had Chekhov become the Moscow Art Theatre's playwriting rock star whose characters and plots eventually made the word Chekhovian part of our literary vocabularly.
Since Chekhov was reputed to be a great admirer of A Month In the Country, there is a piquant aptness in CSC's mounting it now that they've produced all of Chekhov's major plays. It's also a rare treat for New York theater goers since, despite a prestigious history encompassing numerous major productions as well as film adaptations and a ballet, it hasn't been seen in New York since 1995.
Even more important than the rare treat factor, this is a lovely production. As has become usual for this invaluable downtown company, it boasts a top drawer cast that includes two main players (Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling) with strong ticket selling credentials. Other CSC hallmarks in place are a director (Erika Schmidt) and scenic designer (Mark Wendland) who have custom fitted the production to the special requirements of the theater's stage being surrounded on three sides by the audience.
The play itself confirms that Turgenev was remarkably ahead of his time in understanding the power of the unconscious in his portrayal of a woman uncontrollably smitten with a man ten years her junior. The havoc wreaked among all caught in the fire of Natalya's feelings makes for a drama that winds up with nary a happy ending for anyone over the course of just five days: Jealousy and manipulation intrude on Natalya's loving relationship with Vera her orphaned ward. . . for 17-year-old Vera it's an end of adolescent innocence and trust. . . . . . Natalya's smart best friend Rakitin seeing any hope of becoming something more joins the parade of departures from the Arkady estate. . .the exodus includes Belyaev (Aleskey), the object of Natalya's passion who finds being caught up in this situation more than he can handle.
Sad as all this sounds, A Month in the Country lives up to its classification as a comedy even more than Chekhov's plays, which is brought out John Christopher Jones contemporary (but not excessively so) translation. The comic high point here is at the top of the fourth of its five acts. That's when Dr.Shpigelsky proposes to the Lizaveta, a companion to the estate owner's mother Anna. The good Doctor's decidedly hilariously unromantic proposal to Lizaveta does indicate a fully functioning libido — to wit his assurance that her "somewhat old-maidish" ways will be no problems since "in the hands of a good husband, a woman is like soft wax."
While Chekhov's plays came by their doctors by virtue of his own dual career as doctor-playwright, Turgenev was not himself a doctor. But Dr. Shpigelsky is an invaluable presence. Besides the comical scene with the resident spinster, he also acts as a go-between — for a price — to promote his socially inept but rich neighbor's suit to wed young Vera. Though the interaction between the two men is quite funny, what the sucess of the suit would mean for Vera is the stuff of tragedy.
The play does feature some social commentary, mostly from Dr. Shpigelsky. But A Month In the Country is primarily a story of desire that starts with a slow burn and erupts into a flaming fire.
With so much of the turmoil inside and outside the Arkady estate caused by one woman's exploding libido, the actress playing Natalya must bring sexual sizzle as well as beauty to the role. Clearly a more than usually challenging New York stage debut for Taylor Schilling who's best known for starring in the original Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The challenge is intensified given that she is following in footsteps of some truly grand dame Natalyas — among them, stage and screen star Alla Nazimova, a genuine Russian who headlined the 1930 Broadway premiere. . . Ingrid Bergman in a 1965 London revival. . . and our current super star magnet Helen Mirren who starred both in London and the last New York production 20 years ago. But Schilling isn't just gorgeous in those in one lovely taffeta gown after another but ends us digging deep into the role. She lets us see deep inside a woman caught up in a state of sexual bewitchment.
While the plot is driven by the fallout of Natalya's attraction to the young tutor hired for the summer, the second major role doesn't belong to the young man but to Peter Dinklage's Rakitin, the confidant whose sexual yearning also refuses to remain submerged. Dinklage has more stage credentials than Schilling. However, he too has box office magnetizing name recognition via movies and TV (He's Tyrion Lannister in the HBO series Game of Thrones). With his big booming voice and soulful eyes he is ideally cast as the wisely restrained but deeply pained always on scene friend to both Natalya and her husband.
Mike Faist plays the young tutor fancied by both Natalya and her young ward with laid back charm. He's too slim to have the muscle rippling sizzle often associated with this type of role, but his less showy persona works well to depict his character's interaction with both Natalya and Vera.
Plays written before theater economics reduced the cast of revivals by having actors play multiple roles. Not so in this A Month of the Country and just seeing that large cast take its final bow is another treat. All have a chance to get into Tom Broecker's time and place perfect costumes and to shine, even if only briefly.
As already indicated, one of the key and most entertaining visitors to the Arkady estate is the country doctor. Thomas Jay Ryan whose work I've previously liked, impresses more than ever in this wryly comic role. Megan West aptly taps into Vera's too sudden growing up and Anabella Sciorra is amusing as the woman the doctor rescues from spinsterhood. Elizabeth Franz's talent is somewhat wasted in the minor role of Anna the oldest Arkady. Anthony Edwards as her son who'd rather just keep the truth about the emotional upheavals all around him sublimated in business and surface small talk is no wiser at the end than at the beginning.
Turgenev's romantic game with no winners and pretty much all losers, is aptly sandwiched between a first and final act card game. The two and a half hours (including intermission) it takes for the game to end fly by — and so will your chances to watch it if you don't nab a ticket soon. Even if it extends, this is a limited run.
Consumer note: Be sure to pick up a copy of the Classic Stage's always informative Newsletter at the box office.