NEW YORK—“Ivanov” was Anton Chekhov’s first play, written before he created his quartet of masterpieces, “The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” and “Uncle Vanya.” (The last two have been directed by the gifted theater artist Austin Pendleton for the Classic Stage Company, as has “Ivanov.”) So it is understandable that “Ivanov” may lack the subtlety, the finesse, the more ideal structure of those later plays.
“Ivanov” is the work of a young playwright, but it has much to commend it, and this production offers many shining moments. (The translation used is by Carol Rocamora.)
Ivanov (vividly portrayed by Ethan Hawke), a landowner in a province in central Russia in the 1880s, is besieged by many problems, both tangible and emotional. He constantly complains of feeling “depressed.”
This depression undoubtedly stems, at least in part, from his severe feelings of guilt. His wife, the lovely, gentle Anna Petrovna (Joely Richardson, whose inner serenity infuses the role) is dying of consumption.
She is Jewish, and has rejected her own parents and faith in order to make a life with Ivanov, whom she still loves. But he no longer loves her, and feels powerless to change his feelings.
Anna’s priggish doctor, Lvov (Jonathan Marc Sherman), repeatedly chastises Ivanov for his lack of attention to his wife and claims Ivanov is actually hastening her death by his behavior.
Adding to Ivanov’s miseries is the fact that he is deeply in debt, and it is to a neighboring landowner and “friend,” Zinaida (Roberta Maxwell). Ivanov often visits Zinaida with other people, as the neighborhood contains virtually no avenues of entertainment. Zinaida is ruthless in matters of finances, and even goes about snuffing out candles in order to save money.
A portion of the Ivanov’s debt is due within days and what is he to do? Luckily, Zinaida’s compassionate husband, Lebedev (Mr. Pendleton, doing double duty, having stepped in to replace an ailing actor), the polar opposite of his wife, offers to loan Ivanov the needed sum. But Ivanov refuses his offer.
Here is the crux of the problem. Ivanov is so guilt ridden that he refuses to save himself, even when help is offered. Obviously self-destructive, he wants to punish himself. (In fact, Ivanov may be a pathological depressive, and perhaps may have been helped in present times with the aid of medication or a wise psychotherapist.)
It is ironic that the doctor so often present in the play fails to recognize Ivanov’s very real psychic pain. Remember too, that Chekhov himself was a doctor, yet presents Lvov as a pompous hypocrite out to hurt Ivanov.
Of the group of friends and neighbors who are part of Ivanov’s life, there is, most notably, Shabelsky, a Count (George Morfogen, giving a large and effective portrayal), who though now 65 years of age is just getting ready to consider marriage. He has selected the wealthy young widow Babakina (Stephanie Janssen), but this relationship probably won’t work out.
Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald), manager of Ivanov’s estate, arrogantly walks about, claiming he could increase their fortunes if only someone would give him a large sum of money to invest.
After Anna Petrovna dies, a possible bright note for Ivanov appears in the person of young, enthusiastic Sasha (Juliet Rylance, whose soft but strong energy infuses her scenes). The daughter of Lebedev and Zinaida, she adores Ivanov and would do anything or go anywhere for him. She does not even blanch when her mother wants to “trim” Sasha’s dowry because of Ivanov’s debt.
But again, Ivanov follows his usual negative pattern.
The production conveys the effect of placing the viewer in another era and place, and experiencing the impact of characters who are both like, and unlike, us.
The set design by Santo Loquasto simply but richly conveys the ambience of the time and place. Marco Piemontese’s costumes are very fine, particularly observed in the delicate details of the women’s costumes, which can readily be seen in this small theater.
Others in the cast are Annette Hunt, James Patrick Nelson, Anthony Newfield, and Anne Troup.
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Running Time: 3 hours
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit www.classicstage.org
Closes: Dec. 9
Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
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