Aprivate parlor car is slowly backed onto a railroad siding at the Russian village of Astapovo. It is an impressive opening maneuver, which is greeted with deserved applause, and is followed by the entrance of the play’s notable star, Julie Harris, in the title role as Count Leo Tolstoy’s estranged wife. What follows is a rather talky, dark and murky account of the last hours in the writer’s life.
“Sonya,” by Leon Katz, boasts a cast of 15, many of whom offer arresting portrayals of the various disciples, physicians and family members who are fiercely protective of their spiritual leader. What emerges are bits and pieces of Tolstoy’s dedication to nonviolence, his philosophical teachings and the turbulent break with his wife of 48 years. (Similar territory was staked out earlier this season by James Goldman’s short-lived West End outing, “Tolstoy.”)
The action is often muted, and events that suggest a vivid chapter in the history of Imperial Russia become instead a long day’s journey into night. There is a good deal of sibling antagonism over the existence of a will, and dauntless efforts to dissuade the visits of a persistent priest and a bothersome news cameraman.
The main thrust of the drama, however, is the desperate attempt by Sonya to reconcile with her dying husband as he lays in the tiny stationmaster’s cottage. It is no surprise to find Harris in complete command of her character. Feisty and fussy, the actress brings a keen balance of dignity, gentle wit and burning passion to the Countess and her unsuccessful plight. There are some illuminating scenes as she reminisces by a campfire with the compassionate Dr. Dushan (keenly played by Timothy Jerome); an angry confrontation with Chertkov (Philip Baker Hall), Tolstoy’s leading follower; and a final moment of hope with her youngest daughter, Sasha (Miriam Healy-Louie).
Jennifer Harmon, Reno Roop, Jud Meyers and particularly Healy-Louie, as the bookish Sasha, offer sensitive performances of divided loyalty and protectiveness. Like Edward Albee’s “All Over,” everyone has much to say and remember as they summon praise and denial with bitter recrimination and ar-dent devotion, while the great man lies dying nearby.
Katz has written a play with lofty vision that would benefit from less carping and more clarity. Bram Lewis’ staging seems heavy-handed, but it’s more likely that the lazy tempo is the result of the play’s laborious structure.
This is the first time in the nine-season-old Phoenix company that the full resources of the vast SUNY stage have been complemented by the use of the thrust. Campbell Baird’s sprawling set uses every available inch, from a turn of the parlor car that revolves to display a cushy interior, to the silvery network of tracks and the little cottage housing the unseen novelist.
Amela Baksic’s costumes and the knowing lighting design by Dennis Parichy and Shawn K. Kaufman lend atmosphere to a Chekhovian landscape.