In the year leading up to Leo Tolstoy’s death in Astapovo in 1910, a nonstop battle waged between the legendary Russian writer/philosopher’s wife of 48 years and his worshipping disciples, led by his publisher, Chertkov. This overheated finale was the basis of Jay Parini’s acclaimed 1990 novel “The Last Station,” which has now been adapted for the stage by Blake Robison and Connan Morrissey.
The play covers much of the same ground as Leon Katz’s two-act “Astapovo,” which Yale Repertory Theater premiered in 1983. That play suffered because the dying Tolstoy was not seen on stage. Robison and Morrissey’s “The Last Station” suffers because Tolstoy is seen — but without sufficient stature and enough information about him and his beliefs and philosophies. Their script, though by no means without merit, seems more a radio play than a robust theater piece.
There’s more depth in Parini’s novel, which is based on thorough research into the writings, diaries and notebooks of Tolstoy, material that might have been worked into the play to give it more flesh and substance.
As far as they’ve gone, Robison and Morrissey have created a deft chamber sextet for six actors that is directed and performed with considerable skill. For the production, Jeff Modereger has planted a grove of bare birch trunks at the rear of the Royall Tyler Theater’s thrust stage and then placed 10 or so chairs among the trees and on the bare stage in front of them. The cast members move the chairs into different positions, scene by scene.
The vibrating roar of an approaching train prefaces the play, then the lights go up on the six actors, each standing in a pool of light, with Tolstoy (Jerome Kilty) among the trees at the rear. He remains silent as the other five begin to speak, solo or in unison.
The play unfolds through a series of monologues delivered to the audience and scenes in which two or more characters interact.
Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Sybil Lines) is the most wildly emotional character, firmly believing that the others are convincing her husband to change his will at her and her children’s expense, accusing him of having homosexual inclinations, and running the gamut between love and hate (the Tolstoys’ marriage is generally believed to have been an infamous mismatch). Lines is not afraid to make the countess an impossible woman, though she does sometimes teeter on the brink of too much theatricality.
As Tolstoy, perhaps because there is too little in his role for him to dig into, Kilty is too sweet, too fussy and at times too vigorous for an ill 82 -year-old. He does, however, dierather well.
Ray Dooley and Bill Gorman offer technically adept personifications of Tolstoy’s publisher and doctor, respectively, and Jenny Langsam is brisk and likable as Tolstoy acolyte Masha. But the 24-year-old Bulgakov (Kevin Cristaldi) is the play’s most sympathetic and understandable character, partly because Kevin Cristaldi plays him so affectionately.
Despite the able performances, this stage version of “The Last Station” doesn’t make enough good use of its rich source material.