By George F. Walker
Based on the novel Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
Produced by Firebelly Productions
Directed by Robb Hunter
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Once in a great while, a production can be of such high quality that it redeems a mediocre script. Firebelly’s production of Nothing Sacred is not one of those instances. However, it presents a few terrific performances which ought to provide us with good cheer.
Like many mid-19th century Russian novels, Fathers and Sons is as lengthy and complicated as the U.S. Tax Code. George Walker’s retelling of it slenders it down, but does not make it appreciably clearer, and moreover adds the faint whiff of the potboiler to it. It is 1859, and under the leadership of progressive Czar Alexander II, Russia is rushing pell-mell from the 11th century to the 19th. Serfdom has been abolished, and something approaching parliamentary democracy has been installed. Arkady (Patrick Flannery), a fresh college graduate, proceeds with his friend Bazarov (Jon Townson), a charismatic nihilist, to the estate of his father (Charles St. Charles), a down-at-the-heels gentleman farmer. It appears as though dad and the housekeeper (Clarissa Zies) have just had a child, and dad is deeply in love – although their difference in class makes marriage impossible to contemplate. Arkady, enraptured with the new thought he learned at college, is eager to impact the New Russia, though he has no idea how. Bazarov, who has burnished his fashionable cynicism to a near-blinding sheen, has resolved to say or think nothing which is not “useful.” It is surprising, still, how talkative he is. As we learn only at the end of the first Act, Arkady’s uncle Pavel (Dave Bobb), a Europeanized dandy, has begun to stalk Bazarov’s mistress, Anna (Kelley Slagle) – because he was in love with Anna’s late mother.
None of this exactly resonates, shall we say, with the contemporary Western mind. Russia has entered the modern world in a series of lurches, and these lurches have inspired much great literature. Turgenev’s novel is a dark meditation on the human spirit, and on the vitality of love and compassion in a society obsessed over ideas of class. It is unclear why Walker would take this novel, full of interior dialogue, and try to make it a comedy. In any event, the result is a lengthy and windy play, full of 19th-century political theory.
Firebelly does its best to turn all this stuff into something vital and engaging. It uses cute little placards to establish time and place. It cushions the scenes with cool music. But the best thing it does is engage Flannery and Townson in the two principal roles, and Kelley Slagle as an important supporting player.
Townson is rapidly establishing domain rights over charismatic, arrogant, bullheaded characters. His Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons was the very model of regal hearing loss: a man deaf to all voices but his own. Here, given a much larger, rounder role Townson creates a charming boor, a man of towering physical and intellectual strength who lacks a sense of compassion but not a sense of humor. Flannery, a relative newcomer, gives Arkady a sort of stubborn hangdog sweetness which makes him an endearing protagonist. And Slagle’s Anna, wise, warm and capable of tremendous mischief, is a subtle and witty creation.
When these three are on the stage, with each other or in combination with the comic characters – the naïve Gregor (Craig Lawrence), Piotr (Mitch Irzinski), Pavel’s pretentious butler, the vicious bailiff (Andrew Pecoraro), the superstitious moron Sergei (Cliff Williams III), or, most spectacularly, Arkady’s Cretanous friend Viktor Sitnikov (Scott Zeigler) – the production sparkles. When they are offstage, things go downhill. St. Charles captures his character’s sweetness, but is otherwise so abstracted that it is hard to be engaged by him. Bobb and Zies were both, in my view, a little over the top. An extended scene between Bobb and St. Charles, intended to set up the climactic confrontation, seemed to go on forever. Bobb, having already set his character on fire several scenes previous, simply could not ramp him up sufficiently further to give the scene any volatility.
Firebelly is an ambitious company and has already taken on some difficult shows and done them well. This one, however, is neither within its grasp nor worth its efforts.
(Running time: 2:20). Nothing Sacred continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until November 4, at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington. Tickets are $15; $12 for students and seniors; and $5 for seniors on Sundays. For tickets, call 703.409.2372 or go to http://www.firebellyproductions.net/.