WILLIAMSTOWN -- It began with a fan letter from an American playwright to an American-Russian pair of translators.
The American playwright is Richard Nelson, whose plays have been produced on- and off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country.
The translators are not just any translators. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are considered the pre-eminent contemporary translators of classic Russian literature into English. They also have the Oprah seal of approval. Their translation of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" was an Oprah Book Club selection.
"They are incredible," Nelson said during a recent lunch break interview in a second floor rehearsal room in Williams College's ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, where Nelson, Pevear and Volokhonsky's new translation of Ivan Turgenev's "A Month in the Country" is having its world premiere in the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage through Aug. 19.
Nelson, who also is directing this production, became enamored of Pevear and Volok honsky's work when he started reading their translations of Dostoyevsky 15 years ago.
"It opened doors for me," Nelson said. "I realized after a while that they hadn't translated any Russian plays."
So, he said, he wrote them a long fan letter. They replied within a few days and then came to New York from their home in Paris to meet with him. After attending a performance of one of his plays in the city, they sat down with
"My feeling has been that there really isn't a decent translation of the play," Nelson said. "I've also felt it's been a misunderstood play in the English canon. I just felt it warranted a new look."
Nelson feels much of that misunderstanding may be because the central character, Natalya, an emotionally restless woman who is experiencing desire for the first time in her life, traditionally has been played on English and Amer ican stages by actresses in their 40s or 50s.
"In reading the play carefully," Nelson said, "I noticed that Turgenev specifically sets Natalya's age at 29." That, Nelson suggested, became the touchstone for this translation.
The three collaborators set to work. Volokhonsky did a first draft; Pevear did a draft off hers; Nelson did a draft off Pevear's.
They got together and spent their own month in the French country, working in a farmhouse in Burgundy.
"A Month in the Country" was written in 1850, but be cause of Turgenev's views on serfdom and his frequent contacts with political and social radicals, the play was banned by authorities and not performed until 1872.
Including "A Month in the Country," Turgenev wrote 10 plays. "A Month in the Country" is the only one that is still produced, and even then chiefly at colleges and universities and at regional theaters.
"A Month in the Country" might have joined Turgenev's other plays in obscurity had it not been for a more celebrated Russian playwright, Anton Chek hov, who brought Tur genev's play to the attention of Russian director Konstan tin Stanislavki, who produced "A Month in the Country," on Chek hov's recommendation at his Moscow Arts Theatre in 1909 in a bare bones, minimalist production, stressing psychology over production values, that secured a lasting place for the play. Stan islav ski's approach had its impact on Nelson as he prepared to direct this world premiere.
For this production, the first four rows in the orchestra section of the 512-seat Main Stage have been removed and a 14-x-16-foot platform ex tended out from the stage.
All the play's action will unfold on the platform using furniture pieces that will be carried on and off the platform by the actors, who will be seated off to one side of the platform when they are not involved in a scene.
In addition, a bank of between 15 and 20 microphones have been hung above the platform in order to capture every sound, every nuance of conversation.
"I want the actors to sit and talk to one another conversationally. This play is about the nuances of conversation," Nelson said with childlike glee as he showed off a model of the set and demonstrated how it will work.
"The effect I want for the audience is the sense of overhearing conversation, viewing the world of the play and its characters over the shoulder, through a peephole,"
"I want the actors to listen to one another, speak to one another; to think and speak at the same time."
For the audience, Nelson says, "it requires (a) wil ling (ness) to lean in.
"It asks a lot from the audience. It's hard. It's difficult. It's exciting."