AS THE COMMENTATORS insisted weekend, we are indeed the inhabitants of a new era. But, contrary to what they said, that era began sometime ago. We have grown accustomed to our world of ultimatums and extremes. And when we choose to live, we choose to live in one kingdom so entirely, that we forget the possibilities alive in neighboring realms. We may be more open, more frank, but we have lost the ability to taste simultaneously conflicting passions. In such a world, pathos is rare, when found it is priceless. For pathos, at its best, is the commingling of pleasure and pain, of laughter and sorrow, in such a precise equality that one simultaneously feels the presence of both.
Te Loeb (if one is to trust their publicity flyer) selected Turgenev's A Month in the country for their summer repertory because of its "contemporary pertinence." In its concerns, in telling of the middle-aged Natalia's (Joanne Hamlin) love for her son's young tutor Beliaev (Christopher Reeve), the play deals with quite contemporary themes: with the dominance that those who are loved have over those who love them, with the illusive freedoms men surrender in a futile attempts to capture other freedoms they can never possess. But in tone, it is quite the opposite from the explicitness and boldness that often act as blinders on the visions of modern theatre. This play's tone is much more akin to Bergman's delicate Smiles of a Summer Night. On Turgenev's pages, the dots of suspension, and on the stage, is characters' embarrassed pauses should alone be to tell a story quite eloquent. It is a comedy, but a very special kind of comedy, one full of sweet pathos.
Unfortunately, the current Loeb production production under the direction of George Hamlin, never rises above being just a comedy. In an effort to flush out any and all possible amusement that Turgenev might have tucked away in the script, Hamlin allows his actors to employ too many different comic styles. The result is that this production is both unfaithful to the play as well as to itself; in fact, during a few crucial scenes there seemed to be at least three different plays going on all at once.
For examples, Anthony McKay as Natalia's slighted husband, quite skillfully makes his character a denizen of French farce. In any other play, his stylized portrayal would have been quite funny (as, even in this one, it is) except for the fact that McKay's every entrance disturbed the production's then-prevailing mood. Ann Sachs, who, as the tutor's adolescent lover Vera, has a role (that of a girl, wounded by love, who hardens into womanhood) similar to that she played in The Hostage. As a rural character she is fine, fresh native, though perhaps too given to sometimes enthusiastic "mugging," but, in this particular play, the role demands more of a sophisticated veneer. Vera should display more of her country education; and, with such sophistication, would come a heightened sense of tragedy. As Beliaev, problem. While physically right, he never manages the proper diction, he tends to run his words together, occasionally even slurring a g, and rarely being anything more than Russia's answer to the Graduate.
Thankfully, Joanne Hamlin's Natalia is no Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Hamlin is quite lovely as a woman infatuated by both and individual youth and youth itself. Natalia is more than just a victim of sur-pressed menopause; as Turgenev, who shares much with James and George Eliot, envisioned her, she is complex, distraught. Mrs. Hamlin, though, never searches below the sparking surface she creates. Her second act appearance on a reclining coach is too light; it does not help create a woman who--even if she had not met Beliaev--would have ended up in much the same desperation.
The other members of the cast--John Babington, Sheila Hart, Joan Tolentino, and Daniel Seltzer--play members of the Russian gentry, and because they do not strain for big laughs, receive respectful smiles of admiration. Ted D'Arms, a great bear of a man, is particularly good, in spirit as well as carriage.
Delicacy, and pathos are all the more solely misses when they are approached so tangentially, but never quite captured, as in this production. Instead, the company has acted rather like a small boy with a beautiful butterfly. They have toyed with the creature so much, that though many bits of beauty remain, most has been destroyed.