The word “respectful” always comes to mind whenever the Mint Theater Company mounts one of its meticulous productions of an unknown or abandoned play from the vaults. Given the kid-glove approach espoused by a.d. Jonathan Bank, it’s no surprise that the mighty little theater beat out 45 others for a $100,000 grant from the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund to revive Tolstoy’s “Power of Darkness.” Banned in Russia for a decade (“You need nerves of steel to withstand it,” one censor wrote), the 1886 drama still packs a punch for its shocking depiction of infanticide.
The heavy backstory on Tolstoy’s play is meat and drink for the Mint, which enhances its revivals with “surround events” — scholarly lectures, open discussions, published texts and such — to expand the experience. (Who could resist a palm-sized collection of Tolstoy’s “Wise Thoughts for Every Day,” bound in striking red hardcover for $15.99?)
The Russian novelist, born an aristocrat, was inspired to write this little-known play by a true 19th-century crime of infanticide committed in Tula, the province where the Tolstoy estate was located. But the czar’s censors denied the Moscow National Theater a production license on grounds that the subject matter was too revolting. Tolstoy’s renegade political views didn’t sit well either.
Thanks to the Mint’s sturdy dramaturgical work (which surfaces in the well-written program notes from which this summary happens to be cribbed), we also learn that Tolstoy softened his offensive last act in a rewritten version. Although this was the version that came to be played in American theaters, international companies overwhelmingly opted for the original script. As does the Mint.
So, is it really necessary, all this background? Well, yes, actually, because Tolstoy is no Turgenev, much less Chekhov. Even with that baby-killing scene presented intact, this powerful, but lugubrious drama — about a hired hand who robs his master, seduces his wife and daughter, and is brought down by the women he mistreats — lacks the theatrical graces to stand on its own. Wrapped in its own history, however, the play presents a fascinating view of the mean conditions of life in Imperial Russia for any peasant without a kopek — and the perils for any writer who dared to speak openly of these hardships.
Although too slavish to every idiomatic tic, the new English version by director Martin Platt reasonably suggests the harsh, blunt sounds of the Russian tongue spoken by the uneducated peasants of Tolstoy’s era. Platt’s staging is even more direct, conveying a grim sense of rural life on isolated farms by drawing cues from Bill Clarke’s sparse setting (the rough log walls, the glowing religious icons, the bare plank furniture) and Jeff Nellis’ stark lighting design (the single window of light in a dark night of the soul). All the details have gone into Holly Poe Durbin’s defining native costumes, with their voluminous peasant skirts and fussy little prints, along with some exceptionally good props from Scott Brodsky.
While they may not have the discipline of a resident company, the troupe assembled by Platt projects a sense of ensemble play that spans the generations. The elders have the technical edge, what with pros like Steve Brady and Randy Danson as the parents of a disrespectful son who dishonors them, and Jeff Steitzer as an odd-job farmhand who wows the villagers with an impromptu lecture on the evils of banking and the role of bankers as the bloodsuckers of an agrarian economy. But even a little bit of a thing like Jennifer Bissell, as the young daughter of a landowner who loses all to his hired man, makes a smart impression.
The horrific event at the heart of the drama — the murder of a baby inconveniently born to a girl about to be married — is carried off with authority by the three actors playing the principals in this morbid crime: Angela Reed as the frantic Anisya, who has already killed her first husband to marry his hired hand; Mark Alhadeff as Nikita, the farmhand who marries Anisya, only to betray her with her stepdaughter; and Randy Danson as Nikita’s manipulative monster of a mother, who has been orchestrating the entire sordid mess all along.
Nobody blinks during this long, drawn-out scene, and the horror of it vividly illustrates Tolstoy’s conviction that people lose their humanity when forced to live in poverty and ignorance. But for all its pains to show the consequences of living in such misery, the play is really about the corruption and redemption of one man — Nikita.
The character is simplistic enough as Tolstoy wrote him — a brute of a man who, while irresistible to women, is too stupid and greedy to monitor his own destructive appetites. But as thick a lout as he is, Nikita is still too much for the miscast Alhadeff, who, while he makes a good reluctant murderer, lacks all conviction as the village stud.