Alexander Ostrovsky was one of the most popular and prolific Russian playwrights of the 19th Century. The Forest, written in 1870, nine years after the emancipation of the serfs, reflects shifting relationships between the classes: Raisa, an elderly, wealthy landowner, is selling off her forested estate bit by bit to Ivan, once a peasant and now a wealthy wood merchant.
The fiscal arrangements weight heavily on the lives of others. Raisa’s penniless ward, Aksyusha and Ivan’s son are in love but Ivan won’t let his son marry a girl without a dowry which won’t be forthcoming from tightwad Raisa. Meanwhile, Raisa is lusting after Aleksev, a good looking young opportunist — supposedly she’s selling her forests to raise money for Aksyusha to marry Aleksey but she’s really picked him out for herself, opening the play to an old woman-young man farce.
Into this estate-focused web of conventional wants two outsiders enter, itinerant actors Gennady and his sidekick Arkady. While the immediate reason for dropping in is that Gennady is looking for a handout from his wealthy relative, Raisa, still they are restless men and seekers of something selfless, spiritual and creative. To gain entrance, they put on an act — Gennady as a Gentleman with Arkady as his servant. When their true identities are discovered, Raisa is pleasant to her relative but becomes defensive, worrying about his claims to her fortune, and pays him a modest amount to get rid of him. Ultimately, because of Gennady’s largeness of soul, that money becomes a deus ex machina to set everything alright, and everybody gets what — and whom — they want.
This play develops the romantic contrasts between the spiritually liberated outsiders — the actors who appear out of the moody density of the forest — and mundane, housebound insiders.
So the forest of the title is both the realm of the free spirit and what’s being sold off for money, chopped down piece by piece, and the tension between these two fuels the author’s creative fire, and give the play its depth and tragic resonance.
It’s a fine play, yet leaden and dull in this current staging by Classic Stage. The early parts, which are talky — and not quite the brilliant conversation of Shaw — were too slowly paced. In the very large part of Raisa, Diane Wiest was annoying: her high voice went on and on with little modulation — like someone practicing the flute when you’re trying to get some sleep — and her emotional range was narrow. The smaller parts were not particularly well cast.
One great actor, however, John Douglas Thompson, brought dramatic and physical dynamism to the role of Gennady. After tedious Act I, we stayed only to watch him. When he spoke the lines of Shakespeare the part requires here and there it was immediately thrilling. He was, by the way, the only actor who ran up and down the rickety-looking ramp — that worried most of the rest of them — with grace and ease, his athleticism a dimension of his force as an actor.
The Forest plays at Classic Stage in the East Village through May 30th. For further information, click on the link.