A Month In The Country – Soulpepper brings cottage country to downtown Toronto

By George Perry

Fiona Byrne is amazing as Natalya Petrovna, the matriarch in A Month in the Country. She reminds me of my Lithuanian mother-in-law.  This Soulpepper production is currently onstage at the Young Theatre in Toronto’s Distillery District

Fiona Byrne by Cylla von Tiedemann

Ivan Turgenev first wrote this play in 1855.  At first, the Russians censored it, then they ignored it for 17 years.  A Month in the Country didn’t gain popularity until Constantin Stanislavsky directed and acted in an interpretation in 1909. 

From a modern perspective, it seems ridiculous that there were political and moral objections to this play.  A century and a half ago though, Turgenev never wrote another play as a result of these difficulties.

Natalya reminds me of Helen, my mom-in-law.  Helen lives in cottage country, where this play is set, but she doesn’t seem to completely fit in.  Fiona Byrne exudes this same charm.  She is miscast, but she is perfectly cast.  Her character is out of place in 19th Century Russia, but perfectly suited anywhere.

Both women tend to transcend wherever they are.  I’m not sure either would feel exactly at ease in Russia, cottage country, or downtown Toronto.  To dislike either woman, or either character, is to be out of touch with the realities of the world.

Some reviewers have had issues with translations of this play flowing through various channels.  I think that that is part of the appeal of the play.  Nitpicking about the accuracy of the translation downplays the underlying, central message. 

Turgenev’s message becomes more and more apparent over time.  A Month in the Country remains timeless, regardless of how many translations it goes through, no matter how many butchers hack away at it.  The crowd of 300 or so well-heeled audience members seemed to enjoy and understand the performance.

The play takes place at a cottage, with a simple set.  The backdrop is a wall made of dozens of doors.  One generation plays cards while another plays outdoors.  It’s what a month in the country usually is: laid back, easy going and filled with good times and laughs.

The plot is complex, yet easy to follow.  Fine acting, particularly by Byrne and Tal Gottfried pay large dividends.  Gottfried shines as Natalya’s 17-year-old ward, Vera.  Both characters develop emotional feelings for Vera’s young tutor, Belyaev (Jeff Lillico).  At the same time, Natalya has a husband who largely ignores her and a platonic relationship with a third man.

Of course, there are several other relationships in the play.  It’s not so much a love triangle as it is a Rubik’s love cube

Meanwhile, the actors literally fly around onstage.  Their trapeze includes a swinging tire, a hammock and a skateboard.  The emotional interplay between members of the ensemble provides further acrobatics.  It reminded me of the great Moscow Circus.  I also felt like I do when I visit orangutans or gorillas at the zoo. 

The Distillery District really is an odd place for any sort of sophisticated production to be taking place.  I hadn’t visited this confined community previously.  I had glanced in while on the GO train, headed to my father’s in the burbs.  It felt like riding the monorail through the zoo, and being there firsthand really felt no different.  It is a tourist trap.  Being there felt more like being in Niagara Falls or San Francisco than it did being in Toronto.  Like Natalya or Helen, this venue itself seems out of place.

Perhaps great apes have no business being housed in Toronto.  Maybe this play has no business being mounted in Toronto in 2010.  I felt the same watching this play as I do whenever I see beautiful, dynamic beasts caged at the zoo.  They are magnificent, but they would be even more so in their natural habitat.  I’d rather see great apes in the African jungle.  I’d rather see this play in a Russian theatre in the early 20th Century.  Trouble is, these habitats are forever a thing of the past. 

A Month In The Country plays at  The Young Centre until August 7, 2010.  Tickets are available online.