This is a stunning, constantly amusing, and deeply intelligent production of Turgenev’s iconic play about realism, romanticism and love.
Set at a country estate in Russia in the 1840’s, it features a grand group of characters, young and old, male and female, aristocrat and peasant enmeshed, each in his or her own way, in love. I’ve read that Turgenev, best known as a novelist, didn’t like this play of his but I think he must have enjoyed working out this witty and thorough set of variations on his theme. True, the family’s little boy, Kolya, isn’t in love — but the playwright saw to it he had a bow and arrow to play with, Cupid personified.
Natalya, the lovely wife of the wealthy owner of the estate, is the central presence and a stunning characterization of a woman on the verge of hysteria. Taylor Schilling is fascinating in the role of Natalya. Her laugh comes fast, loud and shrill — thinning out to strained control. Her voice careens. She flirts with, and insults, Mikhail, the family friend who’s hopelessly in love with her.
And now she is herself absurdly and shamefully in love. A woman with everything including beauty, wealth, a nicely growing child and a devoted husband, she’s driven to give it all up for Aleksei, her son’s summer-time tutor played by Mike Faist, a pleasant but ordinary and much younger man. As Aleksei fashioned a bow and arrow to keep his charge amused, love fashions for Natalya those ecstatic certainties that ignore danger.
In A Month In The Country there’s first love, young love, lustful and fulfilled love — as well as lustful and unfulfilled love. There’s calculating love, skillful love, clumsy love, even (I’m so relieved!) mature and dedicated love.
Mikhail, a close friend of Natalya’s husband, is eternally in love with Natalya. He’s given to poetic metaphors, and, most interesting in terms of 19th century thinking, to attributing human feelings to nature — the very essence of “the pathetic fallacy” of romantic literature and art. Natalya ridicules Mikhail’s flights of fancy: intellectually she’s a hard bitten realist, though totally betrayed by her anarchic psychology. Mikhail is played by the fine actor, Peter Dinklage, an achondroplastic dwarf: his manly presence and deep voice frame his love for the tall, gorgeous Natalya but — a cat can look at a king — his small stature and dwarf proportions intensify his passion’s poignant futility.
J. Jered Janas’ hair designs are unusually expressive, witty and fun to watch. Mikhail’s overgrown tangle of dark hair conveys his romantic, vitalistic sense of nature, like thick, impenetrable woods in a romantic painting. Watch how when Natalya is struggling to hold herself together, her upswept hair is awry — those stray strands just won’t stay pinned — but when her mood turns joyous, the change in her hair style is so effective it elicits a collective gasp from the audience. As Natalya’s young ward, Vera, emerges from youth to womanhood, her unbound hair is swept upward into into modish, pinned swirls — Natalya’s style, but for this determined young woman, every hair stays in place.
The ensemble acting, the set, the lighting, and the costumes are subtle and thought out with wondrous focus in this perfect production. The backdrop is of particular interest: it’s an all-over image of a thick forest, creating the venue of a landed estate. It also reflects the play’s thematic exploration of the conflict between realism and romanticism the tangled growth of birch trees suggests a wild romanticism but, let’s be real, the pattern is repeated — it’s wallpaper.
Oh yes … outside of Kolya, there’s one other character unaffected by love, the old Mother: she’s past it, and content playing — an ultimate variation on the theme of love — solitaire!
A Month In The Country plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through February 22, 2015.