Amid novels that pushed nihilism and social rebellion, Ivan Turgenev also peered into his own personal sense of Russian angst. When he wrote “The Home of the Gentry,” he was reflecting on middle age, the lost opportunities for love, his regret about the important relationships in his life.
Turgenev was coming to accept how much of a balm memory can be. In a word, he felt heartbroken. Playwright Crispin Whittell has adapted Turgenev’s 1859 novel into a new play, “The Primrose Path,” which opens in previews this weekend at the Guthrie Theater.
“This is a story in which the main character desperately needs a hug,” said Roger Rees, who is directing the world premiere.
The production originated several years ago when Rees pitched Guthrie director Joe Dowling on this Russian book full of homesickness. Whittell, eager to write a big, romantic work for the stage, presented Dowling with a first draft that was good enough to trigger some workshops. Apparently, Dowling also liked Whittell’s work enough that he asked the British writer to do a new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Whittell’s version has been used since 2010 at the Guthrie.
The diversion into “Christmas Carol” was somewhat timely, because Rees had his own “blip in the schedule.” He was directing the musical “Peter and the Starcatcher” in 2009 at La Jolla Playhouse, before it opened on Broadway in 2011.
“It’s happening as it was supposed to happen,” Rees said of the production’s gestation period.
Turgenev’s story revolves around Lavretsky, a landed Russian gentry who returns from disappointment in Paris to his ramshackle estate. He catches a breath of optimism in the affections of a cousin’s daughter, yet ultimately has only his memories of romance to soothe him. Kyle Fabel, a Broadway actor, plays Lavretsky at the Guthrie. Sally Wingert is the cousin, and Suzy Kohane, a product of the University/Guthrie BFA program, is the young love interest.
“Daring to love someone is something we all do,” Rees said.
About that title
Rees is making his directing debut at the Guthrie. Former artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, he’s best known to mass audiences as Robin Colcord on TV’s “Cheers” and Lord John Marbury on “West Wing.” On stage, he won the 1982 Tony for his performance as the lead character in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” He was also nominated in 1995 for his role in “Indiscretions” with Kathleen Turner and Jude Law. That adaptation, from Jean Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles,” provided a lesson in “play titles” that Rees and Whittell took to heart with the Turgenev work.
“Gerry Schoenfeld told me ‘Les Parents Terribles’ was not going to sell, even though we had Kathleen Turner and Jude Law in the cast,” Rees said. “So we called it ‘Indiscretions.’ ”
Turgenev’s novel translates awkwardly into English, sometimes being rendered as “The Nest of the Nobles” or more commonly as “The Home of the Gentry” or “The Nest of the Gentry.”
“If Turgenev knew how badly the Russian title translates, he would have approved,” Whittell said of the name “The Primrose Path,” which is a nod both to a line in “Hamlet” and Turgenev’s great love for Shakespeare.
Need for music
Whittell recalled that one of the first notes from Rees regarding the show was that there should be “a wooden floor polished by the feet of 100 serfs, and one piano.” Music is an integral part of the production, Whittell said, so composer Wayne Barker has returned (he scored the Guthrie’s “The Great Gatsby” in 2006) to express tonal moods and themes — an accumulation of details aimed at a purpose, as Barker phrased it. Actor Tom Bloom portrays a German composer who is lost in Russia and spends time at the Lavretsky manse. Bloom will play Barker’s compositions live on stage.
“Roger is very musical,” Barker said while Rees shook his head vigorously and growled out a line of garble to show his musical talent.
“See, now that’s something I can deal with,” Barker said. “That is much better than a director saying, ‘I want something that’s lemony. I want something that feels like a sofa. You can work with [repeating Rees’ garble].”
Seeds of change
When Turgenev wrote “The Home of the Gentry,” Czar Alexander II was soon to emancipate the serfs. In the United States, slaves, too, would be freed within a decade. Darwin in 1859 published “The Origin of Species,” and in France, Manet was painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” a statement of artistic independence with its provocative nude image.
“There were big puzzle pieces being moved around, and something was afoot,” said Whittell. “It was feeding Russia.”
Rees feels there is a “grasping, a grabbing of life in the Russian experience.” The country’s vast and cold geography so affected people who in the mid-19th century were dealing with the change in agarian patterns and the Industrial Revolution. Those facts and the immense impact of change fueled Turgenev’s portrait of small towns and ordinary people.
“It was 50 years before Chekhov, but the seeds of change were breaking through the ground,” said Rees.