A Month in the Country
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 24, 2005
A Month in the Country, about 150 years old, was nevertheless new to me; I found it utterly delightful. It's at Theater Ten Ten right now, mounted with that company's usual loving attention to detail and respect, under the superbly unobtrusive guiding hand of director David Scott. Ten Ten alumni Annalisa Loeffler, David Tillistrand, and Elizabeth Fountain are better than ever in three of the play's main roles, while Greg Oliver Bodine and Timothy McDonough prove particularly impressive in their Ten Ten debuts. A great time is promised for all, I think.
The play, by Ivan Turgenev (I can't find a translator credited in my program), takes place at the estate of Arkady Sergeyitch Islayev, a wealthy middle-aged landowner who devotes most of his time (offstage) to his extensive business affairs, leaving his lovely, intelligent, bored wife Natalya in the hands of Rakitin, a longtime family friend. One look at Rakitin's worshipful gaze at Natalya tells us—though evidently not Arkady—that Rakitin is madly in love with Natalya. And, alas, one look at Natalya's beautiful but distracted face tells us that she is not, and never will be, interested in Rakitin, not in that way. Instead, her attention is focused this summer on Alexey Baliayev, a 20-year-old student from Moscow who has come to the Islayev estate for (so far) the eponymous month in the country. The length of his stay will be determined by what Natalya chooses to do or not do about pursuing her infatuation for this attractive young man.
She launches her strategy by feeling out her ward Vera, who, Natalya quite rightly fears, has fallen in love with Alexey herself. The fact that Vera, at 17, is significantly closer to Alexey's age doesn't much faze Natalya as she wavers back and forth about whether to implement this or that wicked scheme to have her way.
Also involved in aspects of the plot are Dr. Shpigelsky, who is courting, in his remarkably blunt way, Lizaveta, the woman who serves as companion to Arkady's widowed mother. The doctor also is speaking for his friend Bolshintsov, a splendidly dull, plain, elderly (but rich!) chap who would like to marry Vera. There's also a German tutor hovering about, teaching Natalya's young (never seen) son Kolya. And lurking seemingly everywhere—possessing as much knowledge as us in the audience but far more than anyone else in the play—is the maid Katya.
The mood, at least in Scott's gossamer production, is lighthearted and lightheaded; we aren't intended to take any of the foolishness too seriously, even though some of it will likely have serious consequences for some of the characters. A Month in the Country has almost a boulevard comedy feel, tempered with the melancholy and fatalism we associate with Russian theatre; we can see where Chekhov, Strindberg, and Gorky all found comic and tragic inspiration here.
Jennifer Colombo's simple but evocative set morphs artfully from drawing room to garden to an intriguing alcove described only as "an unfinished room" in the program. Jeanette Aultz Look's costumes—really lush by off-off-Broadway standards—define the characters perfectly and fill the stage with color and period style.
Scott's cast is first-rate, from Beth Ann Leone's mischievous parlor maid Katya to David Tillistrand's mostly clueless but genuinely sympathetic master of the estate. Annalisa Loeffler is transcendent as Natalya; we're always a little aware of her sadness and at the same time of her bemusement at her own uncontrollable follies. Elizabeth Fountain and Timothy McDonough are enormously appealing as the youthful Vera and Alexey, with Fountain particularly adept at showing us a sudden transition from girlishness to righteous womanhood (a la Gigi, let's say) and McDonough delightful in his proud but wary befuddlement as he discovers that not one but two beautiful women have fallen in love with him. Ron Sanborn and Lisa Riegel are especially charming in the scene in which the Doctor courts Lizaveta in as clumsy a fashion as possible. Paula Hoza is appropriately imperious as Arkady's meddlesome mother, and Tim McMurray is fine in two very different smaller roles, the tutor and the blustery neighbor Bolshintsov. Greg Oliver Bodine is excellent as the perpetually put-upon Rakitin, who finally finds nerve and voice in the final scenes of the play, to our immense joy.
This is a supremely good-natured piece, basking in the uncommon Russian summer sun and the frivolity it seems to inspire in the denizens of this privileged household. If, like me, you've somehow missed this classic Turgenev work thus far in your theatre-going career, here's a grand opportunity to make its acquaintance, under the most favorable of circumstances.