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From Russia with Love

Huntington Theatre opens its season With Country Months

By Bence Olevecsky

staff writer

A Month in the Country

Written by Ivan Turgenev

Adapted by Brian Friel

Directed by Nicholas Martin

Sept. 6 - Oct. 6

Huntington Theatre

Tickets $12-$62. Call 617-266-0800 for details

The theater season got off to a surprisingly good start last week at the Huntington with a charming and engaging production of Turgenev’s classic play A Month in the Country. Huntington has a proud history of championing the works of lesser known contemporary authors, and the rest of their season is an attest to that. But the success of their season opener stems from the timeless appeal of a true Russian classic, as adapted by one of the greatest living playwrights, Ireland’s Brian Friel (Molly Sweeney, Dancing at Lughnasa).

It’s a winning combination as Friel’s sensitivities translate all the charm and psychological insight in Turgenev’s play for today’s audience with a freshness and lyricism that makes this two hour long production an all throughout entertaining experience. The story itself is a variation on a classic Russian literary theme that will be echoed in a few months when the American Repertory Theatre opens their season with Checkov’s Uncle Vanya: The suffocating normalcy of life on a country estate is shaken up by a new arrival. Long dormant passions and desires come to life, forcing the complacent aristocrats inhabiting the play to re-examine their lives and loves.

In A Month in the Country, the trigger for the emotional cataclysm is the arrival of the young tutor, Aleksey. Instead of imparting his knowledge to the young son of the household, the vivacious and carefree young graduate spends most of his time with the pretty ladies of the estate. Most notably Natalya, who, next to a loving husband and an attentive lover, finds her desires awakened by the spirited youngster. Needless to say, complications ensue, and towards the end of the play when Natalya’s naive adoptee Vera, who also happens to be in love with Aleksey, reassures her mother that “soon everything will be back to normal,” all the sophisticated lady of the house can utter is “Can’t you see, child, it is the normal that deranges me!”

In an exercise of reverse chronology, Turgenev’s plays are often called ‘Checkovian,’ even though they preceded and inspired the more famous Russian writer’s oeuvre. But the misplaced label is instructive and fits A Month in the Country remarkably well. And just as in Checkov’s classics, the play is driven less by the plot than by the colorful characters whose fates are so intricately entangled.

Director Nicholas Martin deserves credit for bringing these characters to life, and choosing and inspiring his cast. Particularly impressive is Jennifer van Dyck as Natalya. She brings a mix of aristocratic self-assurance and youthful vulnerability to the role, but Natalya’s infatuation with Aleksey remains a hard sell, mainly because Ben Fox, who plays Aleksey, lacks the charm the role needs. Plenty of comic relief amidst all the aristocratic self absorption is provided by the cynical country doctor Shpigelsky, played in a farcical manner by Jeremiah Kessel, and the German tutor Herr Schaaf, charmingly caricatured by Mark Setlock.

The set, designed by Alexander Dodge, is harmless at best, unimaginative and bland at worst. The large impressionistic backdrop of a garden seems a bit of an overkill, but the period sets are functional, and don’t seem to impede the actors. And that’s good, because it’s the actors who are the wheels on which this productions runs and the reason for the success it has become.