“The Primrose Path” Wilts Instead of Wows

When a play set in Russia is staged at an internationally renowned theater and boasts a cast filled with Equity actors, one would expect it to include appropriate accents. Unfortunately, such was not the case with the Guthrie Theater’s production of The Primrose Path. Even more unfortunate: this was just one offense I found with the show.

Set in a small town 200 miles outside of Moscow in 1845, The Primrose Path tells the story of the Lavretsky family and the company they keep. It follows the story of Theodore (played by Kyle Fabel, making his Guthrie debut) returning to his estate after living eight years in Paris. He’s come back without his wife (which gets the gossip rolling among the villagers) in order to reacquaint himself with his hometown and, hopefully, find his life’s purpose. His quest becomes complicated with the possibility of new love, the realization that Paris has stripped Lavretsky of his “Russianness,” and the reality that he doesn’t know what he wants after all.

kyle fabel (theodore),
Suzy Kohane (Liza)
photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

The play is an adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novel, Home of the Gentry, and would be best as a production that focuses on Lavretsky’s search for love and meaning. This rendition, written by Crispin Whittell and directed by Roger Rees, however, plays out more as a comedy—and an awkward one at that.

There was a silver lining, however, and it came from the strong performances by individual actors. Suzy Kohane (Elizaveta) played her role as an innocent Christian girl to a tee and was utterly charming. Ann Michaels (A Lady from St. Petersburg) didn’t appear until the second act but captivated the audience with her beautiful singing and natural grace—which she maintained even through the more, shall we say, revealing* sequences. Hugh Kennedy (Panshin) also stood out, and did so without hoarding the limelight. Perhaps the best part about Kennedy’s performance was how aware he was of his surroundings. Everything from the lift of an eyebrow to his smirk and eloquent annunciation elevated his scenes far above the others.

A few things that tripped up the productions: its lack of depth, too much comic relief (I found myself chuckling rather than being engaged during some of the more serious moments, due to a lack of believability), and a general sense of disengagement. Lines such as “Don’t marry him!” and “Your wife is dead!” stuck out in particular. The delivery and reaction of these presumably important plot points were so rehearsed that it felt ingenuous.

A more detailed set also would have added to the appeal of Primrose. Besides the piano, looming pillars, and a day bed, there wasn’t much for the imagination to work with. Indeed, one of the elements, a raft on a track, reminded me of the musical Big River. Once I made that connection, I found myself itching to sing “Look out for me, oh muddy water. Your mysteries are deep and wide.” instead of paying attention to what was happening on stage. Not the angle they were going for, I’m sure.  

Sometimes when a book is turned into a play, the story gets jumbled. It seems such was the case with The Primrose Path. Then again, others audience members the night I attended seemed to find it endearingly humorous and lighthearted. To each their own, however I can’t help but think that wasn’t supposed to be the takeaway.

The Primrose Path
Through June 15
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls., 612-377-2224

*Be warned of the nudity. It was unexpected and caught me off-guard.