Theater Commentary/Review: A Not So Dumb “Month in The Country”

By Bill Marx

Given the Russian writer’s modernist pedigree, should director/playwright Richard Nelson and translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky be punished for putting some “unevenesses” into their staging of Turgenev’s finest play, “A Month in the Country”? I think not.

A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev. Translated from the Russian by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Directed by Richard Nelson. Staged by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA, through August 19.

Jessica Collins (Natasha) in a scene from WTF’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. Photo: T Charles Erickson

In an essay exploring the genius of Ivan Turgenev, philosopher Isaiah Berlin admires how, in his novels and plays, the Russian author “insists that he takes up no position—he is merely a creator; he knows that when the author, rightly, does not express his own sympathies, the reader, abandoned to his own devices, without direction, without a napravlenie, is puzzled; what is he to think? To be left to arrive at his own conclusions irritates him: reality—the chaos of reality, its unevenesses—exasperates the reader, since he wants a guiding hand, positive heroes.”

For me, it is Turgenev’s resolute neutrality, his Shakespearean “negative imagination,” that makes him our contemporary and, in this day and age, unfashionably hard to take. Ironically, audiences and critics, raised on TV and its consumer friendly ethos (“Tell them what they are going to see, show them, and then tell them what they have just seen”) cling to the clarity of a ‘guiding hand’ as an elemental artistic principle—after all, they paid to be told who to root for. We are well into a new millennium, but viewers pine for nineteenth century certitude, perhaps as a respite from the accelerating confusions of reality.

Turgenev refuses to provide good guys and bad guys, which is one reason he was one of the major Russian writers of his time, an exquisite craftsman whose stubborn commitment to the art of the non-committal (in the face of political crisis) exerted an influence on Henry James and the demanding craft of the modern novel. We are seeing the rise of cultural power brokers who want to give tube-trained audiences what they want, condemning the off-putting self-consciousness of modernism, demanding an art that proffers an anachronistic ease of understanding and popular acceptance. But the trick now, because modernism, like it or not, is inescapable, to create an art that escapes the pitfalls inherent in a rote acceptance of both realism and abstraction.

Director/playwright Richard Nelson and translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky don’t pull that off in their rethinking of A Month in the Country, but their attempt should be treated with respect rather than castigated. Given the Turgenev’s proto-modernist pedigree, should they be punished for placing some “unevenesses” into their staging of what is considered Turgenev’s finest play, A Month in the Country? I think not, though the follow-through at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) suffers from casting and staging flaws that make you yearn to see a production that was handled with more of a nuanced eye toward building an appealing theatrical bridge between the nineteenth century and today.

A scene from a more traditional and costumed take on A MONTH IN A COUNTRY — a 1959 production starring Ian McKellen as the tutor, Belyaev. Good old Constance Garnett provided the translation.

So while I agree with my colleague Helen Epstein that the Williamstown Theatre Company’s production of Turgenev’s great play is problematic in a number of ways, I found the staging interesting and consistently intriguing because it at least tries to dramatize what makes Turgenev’s drama psychologically modern, rather than what makes it safely palatable in the Downton Abby mode, well-acted costume drama that transports us back, with nostalgic appreciation (How far we have come!), to the class-ridden days of yesteryear. The kicker is that if a theater company was going to invest the resources, in these hard times, that do justice to the leisurely look and expansive cast (13 in the original text) of A Month in the Country it would do a Downton Abby knockoff instead because customer satisfaction would be guaranteed.

I wouldn’t, as Helen does, call this version dumbed down in the same way as the American Repertory Theater’s simplified rendition of Porgy and Bess. Director Diane Paulus and company ruthlessly tailored that staging for the economics and tourists of Broadway (and to win Tony Awards). Nelson’s approach to Turgenev may be misguided in some ways, but it must be a labor of love. There is little chance that this version of the play will ever hit Broadway — off-Broadway would seem to be its probable landing spot.

Though I must add that there is more than a touch of arrogance in Nelson’s affection for the script — in the WTF program notes he writes that there are “no act-able translations of this great play in English.” But Isaiah Berlin’s fine 1981 translation, which was performed on the Olivier Stage in London, is still available and seems perfectly stage-worthy. The latter is much closer to the original text than the cut-to-the-bone Nelson, Pevear, and Volokhonsky version, but that is fine — there is intellectual and aesthetic room for both, at least in my mind.

Isaiah Berlin’s translation of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY.

Instead of providing plush upholstery and and snatches of French, Nelson treats the play as a stripped-down Russian version of A Doll’s House, a small-minded collection of bored men and women spiritually imprisoned in a country estate. Instead of envisioning freedom, they play games of delusive/poetic bondage and duplicity, particularly Natasha, who is married to a man she doesn’t love. During the course of the play she swaps one aging platonic love interest (Rakitin) for a young and callow tutor (Belyaev). This maneuvering means undercutting the romantic yearnings of her ward, who has a crush on Belyaev as well.

Nelson takes his cue from Ibsen and Strindberg, rightly seeing that Turgenev’s nonjudgmental eye for the give-and-take in human relationships anticipates the penetrating insights of the other dramatists: he is not just preparing the ground for Chekhov. A scene where Natasha’s husband calmly talks to Rakitin about ending his affair with his wife, making a friendly suggestion that the lover leave the household for a while and then come back, is based on Turgenev’s real life relationship with a married opera singer whose husband accepted the writer as a part of the family. Turgenev’s refusal to embrace melodrama remains refreshing because it reflects the ad hoc arrangements of reality: then and now, sexual and domestic relationships defy easy moral and sentimental categories.

The problem is that Nelson the director has whittled everything down to the point of an at times self-defeating minimalism. That the set is only made up of tables and chairs isn’t the trouble — the catch is that the performers treat the characters as if they are as stripped down to the nub as the stage. As the neurotic Natasha, Jessica Collins comes off as monomaniacally bedeviled — there are no suggestions of aristocratic strength brought low, of a woman of spirit and potential resources undermined by her love of captivity. Jeremy Strong’s intellectualized Rakitin is passive to the point of flaccidity: it is difficult to see what Natasha ever saw in him. As the self-hating doctor, Sean Cullen supplies some welcome energy, but the other members of the cast are enervated — it is as if Nelson rids the production of one cliche (that A Month in the Country is a comedy about an older women who plays at love out of angst) only to be overwhelmed by another, the notion that decadence means characters have been sapped of their life force.

Charlotte Bydwell and Julian Cihi in a scene from WTF’s staging of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY.
Photo: T Charles Erickson

But there are thoughtful touches and insights here as well, particularly in how Nelson dramatizes that Turgenev’s characters are bewitched by what Dostoevsky would call a primal (and spiritual) urge to fail. Natasha and others do exactly what they know they shouldn’t — they despise themselves against their will. The rush toward disaster is either a step toward liberation or evidence of continued decay. So I would not call Nelson’s auteurist take dumbed down, so much as, given the lumpiness of the current cast and director, artistically unfulfilled.

Of course, critics are free to be bored with the world premiere production of a new translation of the play, but not to indulge in dumbness. In his negative review of WTF’s A Month in the Country, Boston Globe critic Dan Aucoin doesn’t indicate that he has read Berlin’s or any other translation of the play. Translations differ, often in fascinating ways — for example, characters have been cut in the WTF version. Yet Aucoin doesn’t just blame Nelson and company for the evening’s limitations, but Turgenev as well, stating that “the actress [Jessica Collins]is hamstrung by the playwright’s narrow conception of her character.”

How does he know? He has never seen the play before, though Aucoin writes that it is “highly regarded.” Granted, it is the summertime and the critiquin’ is easy, but judging a production that uses a new translation of a major play — if you don’t read the original language — means taking the time to look over other versions, if only to try to do justice to the intent of the playwright and the production. Alas, the nineteenth century Russian gentry aren’t the only ones who fail to make a virtue out of laziness.

Note: Since we are talking about nineteenth century Russian stage masterpieces that are available in effective English translations but never produced, would some American company take a look at Irish novelist John McGahern’s version of Leo Tolstoy’s play The Power of Darkness? The production of the script for Irish radio sounds good. It would make for a nifty American premiere.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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