A Month In The Country
Classic Stage Company
14 January 2015
Sometimes set designers do things which are unfathomable. So it is with Mark Wendland's set for A Month In The Country now in previews at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway. The U shaped auditorium has against the back wall a painted backdrop of trees, perfectly evoking the familiar Chekovian sense of rural Russia. The main acting area is a kind of rectangular box – furniture is added as each scene demands it. The sense, though, is that everyone is penned in, almost like animals in a pen. They can be watched and observed, but there is never a feeling that they are free.
None of that is troubling; indeed, it makes perfect sense for this Ivan Turgenev classic play, a comedy of manners of sorts, a kind of light second cousin to Chekov or even Wilde, which deals with many convoluted notions of unrequited love and the pain and sacrifice that such love occasions.
The troubling part is that there is a rectangular structure which is suspended from the ceiling above the main acting space, an affair of screens which is ever-present but which never seems to achieve anything. It doesn't move; it never descends to make the acting space a box, for instance, nor does it do anything at all. It is just there. Quite why is beyond me (and fellow audience member and the staff of whom inquiry was made).
When first encountered, one had the suspicion that the screen box would descend and join with the other rectangular area, to produce a box through which action could be detected – a clever way of showing how boxed in the people who loved each other, to no avail, were in this peculiar, but all too understandable world – but, No. That was not it.
So there must have been some purpose in mind for director Erica Schmidt and designer Mark Wendland's, but what it is is obscure.
Turgenev's play is a delightful confection – putting raw emotion up against the rigours of society and the practicality of humankind. It has an intricate yet delicate plot, which can either bristle with fun and ingenuity or crash into a pit of maudlin reality. Happily, Schmidt's production is of the former type: and while odd in some respects, it is diverting and enjoyable in ways that 200+ year old plays may not always be. The translation by John Christopher Jones assists immeasurably – it is both quirky and perky, permitting modern sensibilities in an acutely period piece.
Natalya is married to Arkady who is several years her senior. They have a son, Kolya, who is being tutored for the summer by a student, Aleksey, a handsome and intelligent man. Pretty much every woman in the household falls in love with Aleksey. But Natalya has another admirer, a friend of her and her husband, Rakitin; she does nothing really to encourage his love but she seems aware of it.
Natalya falls for the young Aleksey and worries about the attachment her ward, Vera, is developing for him. She sets out to wed Vera to a rich neighbour, a much older man, Bolshhintov, so that she can remove her rival and have her way with Aleksey. The local Doctor, Shpigelsky, seeks the hand in marriage of another member of the Arkady household, Lizaveta. All the while, the servants and Arkady's mother watch events unfold with differing levels of horror and fascination.
Schmidt ensures that the action proceeds at a brisk pace and there is a technique of offhandedness which is the hallmark of the production. In one moment, a character will be in rage or despair, the next flippantly responding to something. It's an interesting way to augment and underline the comedy and make the whole proceedings seem less stuffy, more alive. Schmidt has a clear vision for the production and it works – this is a grandly entertaining version of Turgenev's clever work.
Central to the success of the production is a winning and delightful performance from Taylor Schilling, whose bored, but inventive, Natalya is the glittering anchor here. Schilling is quite superb, every facet of her character explored, revealed and considered. She has a natural flippancy which suits the coquettish and spoilt nature of this woman who is used to getting her way and who, like a spider, delights in the web of intrigue she traps herself in.
Schilling has a quirky style of delivering dialogue which makes listening to her a sheer delight. She is adept are revealing the depths of passion hidden under the corseted outer image of Mrs Arkady. Her rapport with the rest of the cast is excellent, and her engagement with them shows the full range from venom through indifference to passion.
Anthony Edwards is splendid as the unfeasibly dull Arkady. His plodding and unobservant/unthinking nature is deftly revealed by Edwards, who never permits the character to be a laughable cuckold, but rather focusses on the way his self-interest surrounds him like a dust-storm, choking the joy and life out of every place he goes. Not deliberately, mind you, there is no malice at play; just a total lack of comprehension about the world he lives and works in. It's deft, precise work.
Equally marvellous, like some sort of gruff, phlegmatic grizzly bear, is Thomas Jay Ryan's Dr Shpigelsky, a man whose honesty stands in marked contrast to those around him. Ryan is excellent and the best scene in the production occurs when he proposes marriage without a hint of romance but with a brutal, refreshing candour. He makes a splendid foil to the clandestine activities of those around him, for whom he has no time. A clever, totally rounded performance.
As the lusty young tutor who sets the hearts of various women aflutter, Mike Faist is wholly convincing. Good looking and capable of great stillness, Faist makes as much as can be made out of the tutor who needs the job but not the aggravation that goes with it. He and Schilling expertly dance the seduction waltz, and the moment when they frenziedly embrace and undress against the backdrop of the trees is powerful indeed.
There is excellent work too from Megan West as Vera, the ward that Schilling's spiteful Natalya seeks to get rid of by marrying her to an older neighbour, Bolshintsov (an excellent turn by Peter Appel) and the marvellous Elizabeth Franz as Anna, Arkady's mother, who watches and worries – with good reason.
Annabella Sciorra shines as Lizaveta; she has glorious eyes which reveal the range of emotions and thoughts her character experiences. She is an absolute joy in a role which could all too easily be thankless.
The most difficult role in the play is that of Rakitin, the friend of the Arkady family who is hopelessly in love with Natalya but upon whose shoulders fall the responsibility of keeping the secrets that threaten to rip the family apart. Peter Dinklage gives a unique, dry take on the character which serves to underline his importance in the plot, provides good comic value but always keeps the hidden agonies of the character comprehensible. The scene where he finally breaks down under the burden of his love for Natalya and weeps for his sorrow only to turn around and make a good joke hit home is exceptional.
This is a fresh and invigorating look at a classic piece of Russian theatre. It is full of careful, finely judged performances and director Erica Schmidt ensures that the lightness of touch and comedic aspects of the play and characters enhance and heighten the underlying personal tragedy and drama.