Spending a month in the country seems an idyllic way of passing these hot, lazy days of summer. Unless of course it’s the play A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, in which the days seem more fraught than relaxed. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us of the goings on in the play.
Hello Lynn. Give us a little background about the play.
It was written by Russian novelist-playwright Ivan Turgenev who lived from 1818 to 1883. He was not quite a contemporary of Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, but certainly they both saw the quirky humour of every day life in Russia.
We join the play after the characters have spent most of the month in this pastoral setting. Natalya is a wife and mother in her 30s, beautiful, graceful and in amorous turmoil. He has a young son and also a ward who is a budding young woman. Natalya’s husband is sweet but preoccupied. There is Rakitin a family friend in his own amorous turmoil of sorts. Then there is Belyaev, the young son’s tutor, who has his own amorous angst, a family doctor and various other family members and hangers on round out the group of characters, all with their own agitated emotions. So the atmosphere is fraught.
With all this love in the air, why is the atmosphere fraught?
Because almost none of the love one person has for another is requited. Rakitin loves Natalya, who is only amused by him. Natalya in turn is besotted with the much younger tutor, Belyaev, and feels guilty and giddy at the same time. Natalya’s ward is in love with Belyaev but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. In fact when Natalya confesses her love to Belyaev, he admits his feelings for her and feels he must leave because of the awkward situation, which adds more turmoil to the household. And when Natalya’s pre-occupied husband realizes his wife’s feelings for the tutor, well matters keep spiraling out of control. This being a Russian play, it’s all complicated and hilarious, and in the hands of the Soulpepper folks, it’s very contemporary and Canadian.
The adaptation is by Susan Coyne and Laszlo Marton. Coyne is a wonderful actress-writer of SLINGS AND ARROWS fame among others. I figure the tight writing and zinger lines and images are her contribution. And Laszlo Marton brings a European sensibility. He also directs the production.
The adaptation sets the play in the modern day, with one foot in Russia and the other in Muskoka. Belyaev travels in the house by skateboard. A tire is used as a make-shift swing. And the clincher, that this is Canadian, eh, is that the old fashioned fridge is filled with nothing but beer.
And how was the production?
I think Laszlo Marton’s direction certainly captures the sense of lazy days of summer. There is a sense of leisure. But in a character’s stillness is the craziness of inner agitation as people are either attracted to or pushed away by the person who didn’t return the affection. Marton also has a lovely sense of image. Natalya leaning against the fridge, with the light pouring out of the open door, is an elegant picture of a woman who is lost to love and doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes he does get carried away with his fussiness to create yet another image. At the end hundreds of pieces of paper blow out from the wings, followed by a beach ball. Too much, not necessary. The performances are dandy though.
Tell us about them.
It’s a strong Soulpepper cast. As Natalya, Fiona Byrne is radiant, poised and overwhelmed by her emotions. As Belyaev, Jeff Lillico is boyish, charming and loose-limbed. As the doctor, Joseph Ziegler is priceless when he proposes to a meek, shy woman played by Nancy Palk, who is also priceless. The proposal is matter of fact, devoid of affection. He says they are well suited so they should marry. He could be talking about tiling a bathroom. But Ziegler says more by adjusting his glasses, And Palk creates more wonders with an open-mouthed stare, than many actors do with pages of dialogue.
I like the production. Worth a visit.
A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until August 7.