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A Month in the Country

The Williamstown Theatre Festival presents a tepid version of Ivan Turgenev's novel about an unhappy Russian woman. logo
Jeremy Strong and Jessica Collins
in A Month in the Country
(© T Charles Erickson)
Where would Russian drama be without the outsize emotions? You can get a taste of just how tepid and trivial it can be during the overlong opening segment of Ivan Turgenev's talky A Month in the Country, now being presented in a new translation by Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, and director Richard Nelson at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

It doesn't help matters that Nelson and set designer Takeshi Kata made the bold, but ultimately unworkable, choice of trying to transform Williamstown's mainstage into an intimate black box by creating a lowered thrust stage (bare but for some chairs and tables), canopied by a grid of suspended mikes -- or that the actors have evidently been ordered to act naturally and with no vocal projection. The result, perversely, is not lifelike, but unnaturally subdued.

Morevoer, it's not until an hour or so into the play that the plot begins to thicken. While discussing her mood swings with besotted family friend Mikhail Rakitin (earnest Jeremy Strong), chatelaine Natalya Islaev (Jessica Collins) decides, on no perceptible basis, that she must be in love with her son's young tutor, Alexei Belyaev (Julian Cihi). Upheaval then ensues.

The creative team has been perhaps over-literal in pegging Natalya's age at 29 (as in the original novel) since, to modern theatergoers, it makes Natalya's laments about being "old" -- compared to her eight-years-younger love object -- ring false and feel forced. Further, Collins' depiction is too contemporary in both speech and deportment. (Costume designer Susan Hilferty has provided the whole cast with vaguely period but improbably flowing outfits).

In the play's second half, when Natalya is strewing mea culpas for being "devious" -- after she made a half-hearted attempt to marry her young ward Vera (Charlotte Bydwell) off to a rich old landowner to get the girl out of the picture -- her contrition is too intense. Clearly, we're meant to view Natalya as a foolish woman, but she stops somewhat shy of the stature of tragic heroine.

As her platonic lapdog, yearning for more, Strong also signals a somber intent throughout. Only Louis Cancelmi, putting in sporadic appearances as Natalya's indulgent, down-to-earth husband, gets the work's tone just right. Turgenev, after all, intended A Month in the Country to be primarily comedic -- if trailing undertones of poignancy.

Indeed, only one scene truly works: Sean Cullen as an all too-bold physician -- boldly flouting the apparent all-company directive to tamp it down -- makes a highly pragmatic, anti-romantic, and thoroughly irresistible proposal to the Islaevs' governess (a delightfully subdued Elisabeth Waterston, channeling Olive Oyl). If only the rest of this rambling, less-than-revolutionary revival had the same level of success.

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