Theatre review: “The Kreutzer Sonata” from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre

By Gordon Spencer

A one-person play comes full of burdens and expectations. The performer has to do everything  alone to make it believable and significant. Thus, the audience is bound to judge the result as much by the artist as by the writer and, even without thinking about it, the director.  When the performer is famous the burden increases due to expectations.

Certainly, by now, regular theatre-goers in Pittsburgh have witnessed and often admired the talents of locally-renowned Martin Giles. Now he takes center stage in Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s production of Nancy Harris’ stage adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s famed novella The Kreutzer Sonata. Giles and director Alan Stanford make it clear that what you witness does not call attention to a potentially bravura performance but tells the story, superbly saying what Harris and Tolstoy want to say.

Harris has created richly evocative dialogue to fill out a tale about a man named Pozdynyshev. In a train compartment, he tells unspecified passengers about his life, his marriage, of jealousy and his killing of his wife plus subsequent imprisonment. Harris includes a disturbing description of the stabbing, by the way. En route, Pozdynyshev ruminates on sex, relationships between men and women and, equally, on the force of music. And he details how his wife, an amateur pianist, seems to have developed a sensual connection with his violinist friend Trukhachevsky when they began rehearsing and then performing Beethoven’s Sonata No 9 usually known as “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

There are things which you could infer en route, such as compassion for the wife and/ or empathy for the guilt and sorrow that Pozdynyshev must feel so deeply that he has to atone by repeating his story to strangers. These elements remain buried in the shadows of Jim French’s sparsely-lit stage. With all of Giles’ integrity and talent, he does not reach across the platform and make you want to hold his hand in sympathy. That kind of deep emotion does not surface. But, within the telling, he eloquently illuminates the moments of tenderness and makes charming the flashes of humor without ever going off-track.  Equally he makes dynamically clear those times of mind-altering anger and disillusionment about how a seemingly ideal life is bound to fall into disarray.

Director Stanford’s evident choice of having the stage constantly in near- darkness seems symbolically appropriate although, eventually, more gloomy than necessary. He and scenic designer Gianni Downs have come up with an imaginative setting, showing what looks like a abandoned home with shrouded furniture where Jessi Sed0n-Essad’s evocative projections glimmer with remembrances of things past, or become surfaces showing flickering, sometimes ghostly shadows of events gone by.

Giles inhabits this space supremely well, but this well-conceived production does not call on us to admire the acting. Rather, it plunges us into a well-written story, one in which every note becomes clear.

The Kreutzer Sonata plays through June 22nd at Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/ 561-6000 or

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