The great Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818-83) penned his exquisite chronicle of Russian social evolution “Fathers and Sons” in 1862, a year after Czar Nicholas had liberated the peasant serfs from centuries of feudal bondage. Playwright Brian Senter has crafted an excellent, insightful stage adaptation of this sweeping work, only slightly marred by the overuse of Paul Sills’ “story theater” technique of having each character narrate stage directions, character motivations and physical actions as they are being performed. Director Michael Jaeger’s inventive staging, complemented perfectly by an outstanding ensemble, captures the dramatic panorama of a society struggling to find a balance between its reactionary, isolationist past and the powerfully influential forces of intellectual and social liberalism coming from Western Europe.
Set in 1859, prior to the serf emancipation, Turgenev’s complex but captivating work brilliantly funnels the author’s social concepts through the relationship of two university friends, the confident but emotionally inhibited nihilist Bazarov (Michael McColl) and the more insecure but malleable Arkady (Bill Harper). Bazarov and Arkady are struggling to find their place in this rapidly changing world while coming to terms with their respective adoring but more traditionally minded fathers, Vassily (Thomas Redding) and Nikolai (Richard Augustine).
Director Jaeger and a facile supporting ensemble masterfully capture the thrust of events and personalities that will lead Arkady to personal salvation while dooming the spiritually inflexible Bazarov to a short-lived life of resignation and isolation.
McColl’s Bazarov is the personification of an intellectually transcendent being who cannot escape his physical passions or his own deeply inbred sense of decency and humanity. Harper invests the more openly good-hearted Arkady with such a palpable need that there is a sense of relief when he finds love and his place in his father’s world.
There is not one weak link in this ensemble. One of the many rewarding scenarios in this work is Bazarov’s ongoing philosophical duels with Arkady’s uncle Pavel, played to the ultra-aesthetic hilt by Jim Anzide. The verbal sparring eventually gives way to a hilariously farcical duel, wherein both hide their real motivations by claiming they had exchanged pistol shots over their disagreement over the literary merits of English writer Sir Robert Peele.
As the sisters who turn the heads of both young men, Gwen Fawcett’s magnetic turn as the liberated Adintsova is more than a match for Bazarov, while Julia Hamilton’s deeply introspective Katya simply burrows herself into Arkady’s psyche.
Facilitating the adroit flow of the production are the beautifully illustrated modular set pieces, created by Michael Allen and Gillian Harwood, that magically transform the vast open area of the Space theater into whatever environment is needed, whether it be the rustic countryside surrounding Nikolai’s farm or Adintsova’s luxurious drawing room in St. Petersburg. The evocative period costumes of Marina Leone do much to create a sense of time and place.