The Power of Darkness
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 23, 2007
In 2007, when it seems like we've seen everything, what does it take to shock an audience—to jolt them to attention? There are two scenes in Leo Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness that accomplish precisely that, at least they did for me; neither moment is gratuitous or sensational, but simply and boldly each is a depiction of human behavior at its most desperate and cruel. What must Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness have felt like to audiences when it was first performed, more than a hundred years ago?
The play begins in the autumn of 1886 in the village of Tula, Russia, where Pyotr Ignatich, a peasant who is comparatively well-off, lives with his two daughters and his second wife, Anisya. Pyotr is ill (we never learn precisely what's wrong with him, but we do see him get sicker), and so he has hired a young man, Nikita, to run the farm. We quickly discover that Nikita and Anisya are having an affair; we also learn that Nikita's father, Akim, wants his son to marry an orphan named Marina who has accused Nikita of seducing her. Nikita denies the charge and his mother, Matryona, helps to convince Pyotr that the marriage should not take place and Nikita should continue in Pyotr's employ. Matryona has a plan to install her boy as master of the house, and she conspires with Anisya to set it in motion. Events move quickly from there; but if I tell you more about what happens, I will spoil this remarkable play, which you really need to see for yourself.
Tolstoy, so astoundingly ahead of his time in this piece, explores a number of thought-provoking themes. Anisya, married to the petty tyrant Pyotr, has essentially become his house slave when we meet her; but in late 19th-century Russia she has no rights to assert against him—a huge issue, as his death looms more imminently, is how she will be able to secure her position in the household when it appears that Pyotr plans to give all of his money (which he has hidden someplace where Anisya can't find it) to his sister.
Meanwhile, Nikita's mother Matryona is a dazzlingly Machiavellian personage, constantly on the lookout for the next opportunity that she can exploit to ensure that herself and her family are taken care of. She's almost monstrous in her quest for self-preservation, anticipating Mother Courage by half-a-century as a woman who understands in her bones that one can't afford morality or religion if one wishes to survive in a harsh world.
Her husband Akim, on the other hand, represents the spiritual realm: he is a very simple (and simple-minded) soul, but he, alone among the play's characters, is a devout Christian, one who always prays before the household icons every time he passes by. For him the way to a good life is concise and clear; in one of the play's most memorable (and delightful) scenes, he is appalled to learn about the then-newfangled notion of banks making money by lending other people's money out for interest.
Caught between these warring sets of principles is Nikita, who is young and handsome and hungry and finds it easy, at first, to take whatever he wants, especially when what he wants—sex, mostly—seems to be so easy to get. At the end of the first scene of The Power of Darkness, he tells a brazen lie in front of the icon of St. Nicholas, something he's been taught is so sinful that he would be cursed for life having done so. This turns out to be precisely what happens, in fact—but the play is not just about religious redemption, it's about finding an ethical way to live among men. The most startling thing for me about Tolstoy's work here is that the modus operandi of Matryona—a mindset that a religious person might easily brand as "evil"—actually starts to make sense in the context of the way she's forced to live.
Martin Platt, who has directed this epic play and also devised the translation, guides the piece masterfully and thoughtfully. Dominating the large cast are Randy Danson as Matryona, in a performance that's as smart and sharp as any you'll see onstage in NYC right now, and Mark Alhadeff, painfully human and humane as the protagonist Nikita; this should be a breakthrough role for this young actor. Lending strong support in smaller roles are Steve Brady as Akim, Jeff Steitzer as an old soldier who becomes Nikita's hired man, and Lisa Altomare as Anisya's busybody neighbor.
The Mint Theatre Company, under artistic director Jonathan Bank, continues to outdo itself with outstanding production design, here provided by Bill Clarke (whose versatile set depicts the interior of Pyotr's small house as well as, most memorably, the yard and entrance to the cellar), Holly Poe Durbin (costumes), and Jeff Nellis (lighting). The Power of Darkness is an immense contribution to the still-young theatre season, and another feather in the cap of this excellent theatre company that's so dedicated to showing us our collective past by unearthing lost dramatic treasures.