Taylor Schilling has as thin a theatrical resumé as anyone in A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, but she dominates the first half of the Classic Stage Company’s production of Turgenev’s pre-Chekhovian comic drama. She is imposing in stature and resonant as a bell, with a focus astute and un-rattled by the peculiarities of the material. Turgenev’s dramaturgy, in 1855, had not yet absorbed the Naturalistic techniques that would make such stage conventions as soliloquies and asides seem realistic. Even a longish speech ostensibly delivered to another person can seem like a breach in the fourth wall that Turgenev’s writing is, in the main, adept at establishing. Schilling, alone in the cast, is unfazed from the start by the odd shifts of perspective that this requires from the actors. She is, perhaps, as a star of the TV show Orange is the New Black, attuned to the imagined foci that acting for a camera requires and has an instinct for transferring that awareness to live performance. More often it is the opposite from camera-centric performers. I have seen such fine on-camera actors as Clare Danes and Susan Sarandon bamboozled by the question of where to look and whom to talk to in a stage production (as though disconcerted by the lack of a red light). In this case it is Schilling’s colleagues who take until after the intermission to make sense of the frequent shifts in focus. She is comfortable with them from the start and is especially good at capturing the poetry of long reflective monologues that challenge the naïve fantasies of the other characters with a frank recognition of human psychology.
The play is, in that vein, a psychological comedy built around a set of aristocratic manners that are, like the upper classes themselves, beginning to crack under the pressure of cultural and historical change. The social conventions in A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY are, in this respect, not unlike the theatrical ones that are feeling the pressure of Turgenev’s prototypical Naturalism (he came closer to naturalizing them in the subsequent FORTUNE’S FOOL, as Alan Bates demonstrated so brilliantly a few years back). The nub of the drama is the socially unacceptable but psychologically real “love” that Natalya, the Schilling character, who is married to Arkady, played by Anthony Edwards, feels for Alexsey, tutor to her ward Vera, respectively played by Mike Faist and Megan West, and the parallel unrequited “love” felt by Arkady’s best friend Mikhail, played by Peter Dinklage, for Natalya. There are also feelings between Alexsey and Vera, the latter of whom is being proposed to through an intermediary by a decent but unappealing older neighbor, to say nothing of the goings on of the servants, companions, and older family members. That this comes off as proto-Naturalistic, rather than morphing into a French farce, says something about the depth of Turgenev’s psychological insight and sociological observation.
Whether the seams that still show in this production can be attributed to the director Erica Schmidt, the translator John Christopher Jones, the reliance on television star power in the casting, or Turgenev himself – each of which has been alleged in one quarter or another – seems to me to be beside the point. When all is said and done, the experience to be had is complex and affectionate, combining a what-fools-these-mortals-be lyricism with an evocation of history and a sense of place that is both nostalgic and illuminating. The imbalance between Schilling and the others rights itself immediately after the intermission, abetted by a series of intimate conversations, written and played poignantly, between friends, lovers, suitors, guardians, wards, neighbors, companions, and servants. Manners inevitably involve subtext – their whole function is to conceal what is really thought and felt, or to blunt it with courtesy – and the chief mode of the actor in embodying them is understatement, or, when the situation demands it, indirection. Dinklage is especially good at this, indirect at first, then, when the realities of the situation come to a head, understated. Or both at once, as when, at one point, he expresses the implications of being a little person in love with a Venus with a simple, “Well…,” followed by the wave of a hand and a pause.
There are at least three generations represented in the play, the youngest by the ward and the tutor, who are not yet in a position to break free of the conventions that constrain their behaviors. West is especially affecting in her role, Faist suitably upright in his. Edwards is, as Arkady, a generation or so older, also appropriately correct, most strikingly in his dealings with his friend Mikhail, who freely admits, when asked, that he is in love with Natalya. It is all very gentlemanly and civilized, and thoroughly believable, given that “marrying for love,” although understood conceptually, seems still to have been a novelty. Arkady’s mother, played by Elizabeth Franz, is a stalwart advocate for the old ways, yet there is astoundingly little – if any – concern by anyone for traditional morality. No one is worried about adultery or premarital sex, just respectability and social position. It is, of course, Natalya, married to a man somewhat older and in love with someone much younger, who is most cognizant of these tensions and whose feelings erupt when it is clear that the conventions will not, in her lifetime, give way to desire, and Schilling is a compelling when the realization arrives. Her pain and frustration – and willingness to express it – prefigures a distinctly contemporary psychology and view of the individual. A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY is a comedy that teeters between old and new, imperial Russia and European modernity, the practical and the romantic, the conventional and the true.
A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY continues through February 28 at Classic Stage Company. For tickets and information visit here. Photo © Joan Marcus (shared promotional image).