Set in the small Russian village of Tula in the years 1886-1887, the work follows the shifting fortunes of Nikita (Mark Alhadeff). He starts out as a laborer for the terminally ill Pyotr (Peter Bretz) and carries out a clandestine affair with his master's wife Anisya (Angela Reed). His father Akim (Steve Brady) wants him to marry the orphan girl Marina (Letitia Lange), whom he has wronged, but with the assistance of his mother Matryona (Randy Danson), he manages to get out of the match. Following Pyotr's death under less than natural circumstances, he marries Anisya but carries on another affair with Pyotr's teenage daughter -- now his own stepdaughter -- Akulina (Anne Letscher). If that weren't enough, Nikita's sins grow even more grave following the intermission.
Tolstoy, who based his play on the trial of a peasant in Tula, intended it as a cautionary tale, but the play as he wrote it did not pass the censor. The most controversial scene, presented here at the beginning of Act II, still retains the power to shock and is one of the most harrowing I've ever experienced in the theater. What makes the play so engaging is that it is not simply about the evil acts the characters enact; it focuses more on the doubts, fears, and desires that cause them to do things they know that they should not.
Alhadeff overplays Nikita's initial cad-like behavior, but is genuinely moving and convincing as the character wrestles with committing his most terrible act, and the guilt that follows it. Reed strikes all the right notes in her portrayal of the unhappy Anisya, who is an active participant in the unfortunate path that her life takes. Danson makes the manipulative Matryona genuinely unlikable without resorting to caricature. Jeff Steitzer also makes a strong, yet understated impression as Mitritch, an old soldier that Nikita hires to work for him.
Bill Clarke's versatile set readily transforms to show off both the interior and exterior of the large peasant hut in and around which the action revolves. Jeff Nellis' lighting is remarkably evocative, particularly in the outdoor nighttime scenes. Holly Poe Durbin's costumes help suggest the time and place in which the play occurs, even if some of the clothing doesn't look as worn as it should, given the poverty of certain characters. While no sound design is credited, several of the background noises heard effectively supplement the action, as does the music composed for the play by Ellen Mandel.
While The Power of Darkness is not a comedy, it does contain lighter moments, and the humor is a welcome relief from the grimmer aspects of the script. Platt's English language version is liberally peppered with profanity, which adds to the coarseness of the various unsavory characters depicted within it. His production is also well-paced, and flies by more quickly than its three-hour running time would suggest.
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