St. Louis University Theatre's production of Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country, which opened last weekend at the Xavier Hall Theatre on West Pine Mall and will run again this weekend, is a model of what college/university theater should be.
First, the play itself, an undoubted masterwork, is seldom seen and therefore the sort of thing that colleges and universities that are serious about what they're doing should be presenting, at least every once in a while. Such practice extends the institution's educational goal beyond its students to the community-at-large. This particular production has added interest because one of the English-speaking theater's most successful playwrights, the Irishman Brian Friel, has adapted it for the late-20th-century stage to winning effect. Non-English authors are often available only in outdated translations, so it is a pleasure to hear a play in fluid, unstilted English. All of the area's colleges and universities are aware of their responsibility to offer theater that professional and community theaters will not, and it's how most Americans see everything from lesser Elizabethan tragedians to contemporary Czech avant-garde comedy.
Next, college/university theater groups need to present their student players -- both those interested in a theatrical career and the pre-meds who enjoy acting -- with plays that on the one hand challenge their abilities but on the other can be performed successfully if directors and coaches do their job. The young cast of SLU's A Month in the Country are well chosen but, more important, awfully well rehearsed -- everyone turns in a better-than-acceptable performance, and some, in roles large and small, are downright impressive. This is director Mark Landis' best production, for SLU Theatre or elsewhere, to date. His blocking, tempo and modulations of tone are insightful and apparently simple -- one achieves this only with a successful combination of inspiration and discipline, and having done so establishes Landis as both a successful director and a successful teacher.
A Month in the Country used to appear on college and university reading lists for survey courses in European literature in general and non-English drama in particular and as supplementary reading in 19th- century European cultural and social history. Any serious discussion of Chekhov called for its scrutiny. The month of the title is the single one that Aleksey (charmingly played by Bhavesh Patel), a gauche, poor young graduate, spends as tutor of the son of a wealthy, cultured family, on their working estate. He has the misfortune to fall (at a distance) in love with the boy's mother, Natalya (Sarah Hund), who, even more unfortunately, falls in love with him -- also from a distance. We are shown only the last few days of the month, during which Natalya, in erotic distress, destroys her longtime friendship with her cavalier, Michel (Charlie Barron); her affectionate relationship with her young ward, Vera (Lindsey Diederich); and her mother-in-law, Anna (Kelly Morris).
Worst of all, the equilibrium of Natalya's marriage to Arkady (Lee Emery) is badly shaken. A jokey, even modestly cynical courtship between Anna's snuff-taking companion Lizaveta (Marianna De Fazio) and the neighborhood doctor, Shpigelsky (Jeff Knox), and another between the family's house servants Matvey (Laiden Baker) and Katya (Mariel Reynolds) show the healthier, more natural side of love. Vera's marrying the coarse, elderly Bolshintsov (Bill Konen) to escape Natalya's unhappy house is a poignant illustration of the plight of middle- and upper-class young women before they achieved suffrage.
Hund certainly explores Natalya's plight to its "foul rag and bone shop" depths, and if her Natalya leaves the impression of a bitch in heat, it also gives us a woman worthy of some pity. As her loving middle-aged friend Michel, Barron gives us the dilemma of a reticent lover and a morally outraged man of the world. Diederich and Patel are winsomely young, thoughtlessly playful and dead serious in lightning changes. The successful lovers provide seriously needed comic relief, especially the nuanced Knox and De Fazio. Reynolds, in a much smaller role, shows promise of becoming that most joyous of theatrical commodities, a beautiful comedienne.
Jim Burwinkel's sets are handsome, serviceable and subtle, and Abby Whiting's lighting -- perhaps a bit darker than one might wish -- consistently makes the most of them. Gregory Horton's costume designs are plentiful and handsome; Kelly Valentine's realization of Horton's intentions is exceptional. Their achievements, the young cast's facility and Landis' understanding of Turgenev's text, filtered through Brian Friel's modern Irish sensibility, come together to make this production of A Month in the Country an almost completely satisfying experience.