WILLIAMSTOWN — When cast members in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country’’ are not featured in any given scene, they walk to a constellation of chairs arrayed on both sides of the stage, sit down, and simply watch, becoming, in effect, part of the audience.
That’s not a good position to be in. It means they’re subjected to the same tedium as the rest of us.
The lethargic “A Month in the Country’’ feels like a month in the theater. Turgenev’s greatness as a novelist and short story writer is beyond dispute, and this play, published in 1855, is highly regarded. But there are few inklings as to why in this spottily performed production, directed by Richard Nelson from a new translation by Nelson and the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volo-khonsky.
Universal resonance can be found in plays about the restlessness, ennui and unhappiness of Russian provincials (Chekhov certainly found it) and it may be that a strong production of “A Month in the Country’’ would do likewise. But nothing much ever seems at stake here. The intimate scale and bare-bones staging suggest that Nelson wants us to focus intently on the words and actions of Turgenev’s characters, and ponder what their respective fates reveal about the cost of roads not taken, the complexities and contradictions of human interaction, and the quandaries that arise when those we love don’t love us back and even mutually reciprocated love proves no guarantee of happiness.
Nelson never finds a dramatically involving way to explore these questions in depth, however, so neither the pathos nor the comedy of “Month’’ really registers. It comes across mainly as a protracted, wordy soap opera about one petulant, not terribly interesting woman’s search for romantic fulfillment.
Set on a country estate in Russia in the early 1840s, the play revolves (and revolves, and revolves) around the dilemma facing Natalya (Jessica Collins), a married woman who is not yet 30 but seems bedeviled by the thought that she is old, that time passed her by when she wasn’t looking.
She’s looking now. Her avid eye falls upon Alexei (Julian Cihi), the handsome young tutor of her son. Natalya starts to shake off her malaise and show signs of life, but remains conflicted about whether to act on her attraction to the tutor. Thus “Month’’ begins to wander in repetitive circles while Natalya wrestles with her feelings and examines the implications. Mind you, those feelings have not gone unnoticed, nor those implications unexamined, by two people close to her.
No, not her strangely oblivious husband, Arkady (Louis Cancelmi), but rather Mikhail (Jeremy Strong), a morose family friend who is in love with her, and Vera (Charlotte Bydwell), the ward of Natalya and Arkady.
Vera has developed a bond with Alexei the tutor. Seeing her as a threat, Natalya begins a game of cat-and-mouse with Vera, subtly maneuvering to marry the girl off to a much older suitor. Meanwhile, Mikhail rouses himself from his perpetual torpor long enough to put pressure on Natalya about the choice she faces.
Few sparks result from this intrigue, however. Strong’s Mikhail and Bydwell’s Vera are too passive and one-note to generate much dramatic tension, while Cihi, as Alexei, projects little charisma, making it hard to understand why Natalya is so captivated by him. As the clueless husband, Cancelmi, so wittily self-assured in Williamstown’s recent production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,’’ never finds the key to his character — although it’s not clear Turgenev ever did, either.
The play’s pulse is strongest when Sean Cullen is onstage, bringing an edge of jovial cynicism to his portrayal of Ignaty, a doctor who also stands to gain something if Vera agrees to marry that older guy. Cullen is especially amusing when Ignaty — set in his ways as only a middle-aged bachelor can be — delivers what must rank as one of the least romantic marriage proposals of all time to a smilingly indulgent woman named Lizaveta. (She is played by Elisabeth Waterston, who in real life is married to Cancelmi and is the daughter of Sam Waterston.)
When the focus returns to Natalya & Co., though, “Month’’ is back to one listless exchange after another. Even though Collins gives an expressive and committed performance that suggests Natalya wants not just to change but to escape from her life, we do not sense in her the churning depths of, say, Ibsen’s Nora Helmer or Hedda Gabler. The actress is hamstrung by the playwright’s narrow conception of her character. More broadly, “A Month in the Country’’ never solves that age-old theatrical challenge: How to depict boredom and inertia without inducing it.