Thursday August 9, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Middle-age crises come early in Ivan Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," especially in the brand new youth-restored astute translation by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that is having a sluggish world premiere under Nelson's direction at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage.

Turgenev's 1850 comedy, as he characterized it, focuses on the soon-to-be-30-year-old Natalya (a somewhat whiny, overly tragic struck Jessica Collins), mother of a 10-year-old boy and locked in a passionless, loveless marriage to a wealthy landowner, Arkady Islaev (a dour Louis Cancel mi), who is not much older than she.

With her 30th birthday only a week away, Natalya is feeling the onset of age; the loss of an already wasted youth and encroaching maturity and responsibility; the anxiety of crossing a landmark threshhold. At the same time, Natalya is feeling the stirrings of passion and desire and it makes her behave irrationally; reach impulsive contradictory decisions. The source of this turmoil is a bright, energetic student named Alexei (perfectly played by Julian Cihi), who has been hired to tutor Natalya and Arkady's ward, Vera (a somewhat bland Charlotte Bydwell). Mean while, Natalya is the object of desire -- and has been for some time -- of a valued family friend, Mikhail Rakitin (Jeremy Strong, who speaks in a barely audible montone and moves with the same quality of lackluster containment).

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An air of settling in, lost opportunity, inevitability shrouds Turgenev's characters like a morning fog that won't burn off. And while 30 in the early 1840s of "A Month in the Country" may well be the equivalent of today's 40 or 50 (the reason why, perhaps, Natalya frequently has been played by actresses in their 40s or 50s), the too-serious way in which these people regard their situation gives "A Month in the Country," at least in this production, its comedic value.

But with the notable exceptions of a superbly crafted and played second-act scene between Sean Cullen's audaciously self-aware family physician, Shpigelsky, and Elisabeth Waterston's luminously strong, articulate, independent Lizabeta, companion to Arkady's mother and the object of Shpigelsky's desire, the prevailing atmosphere is rarely more than stultifying.

Nelson's gutsy achievement as director also leads to the production's major failing.

Nelson and set designer Takeshi Kata have moved the play's action off the wide, deep main stage onto a square platform that replaces the first four rows of the orchestra.

The configuration emphasizes both the claustrophobic proximity forced upon the characters and, at the same time, the spaces between them.

The big, vast, virtually bare stage behind the platform emphasizes, even more, the distances among these characters, the journey some of them are forced to take, literally and figuratively, to bridge a cavernous gap that allows room, plenty of it, for misunderstanding and false assumption.

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The proximity imposed by the platform forces an intimacy in the exchange of dialogue that reduces the vocal and emotional pitch to such a level that the heightened reality of the stage gives way to the frequently mundane, uninteresting, emotionally uneventful texture of real-life conversation.

It doesn't help that, despite all the microphones suspended above the platform, there are moments -- far too many of them, in fact -- in which the dialogue is barely audible. When, during a scene, one character told another he couldn't hear a word she was saying, a woman sitting near me said, out loud, "Neither could we." Amen!

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Sad to say, with the singular exceptions of Cullen's Shpigelsky, Waterston's Lizabeta and Cihi's Alexei, there isn't much here that makes us want to. This production wants to draw us in by reaching out but gives little in the way of empathic substance in return.

These characters have little to fear about missing opportunities. Opportunity stopped knocking long before Turgenev's characters first appear in the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage.