October 9, 2007

THE enterprising Mint Theater continues to impress with its canny unearthing of long-forgotten plays, and its revival of “The Power of Darkness” is another coup.

Few theatergoers probably even knew this 1886 work existed, even though it was written by a writer you may have heard of: Leo Tolstoy.

And while the play isn’t such that he should have abandoned writing novels for drama, it does possess a stark if unsubtle power that still resonates in this production staged by Martin Platt.

Apparently based on true events, and banned by the Russian censors in its original version, “Darkness” is a harrowing tale of betrayal and murder, featuring a depiction of infanticide no less shocking today than it must have been more than a century ago.

The tale concerns a servant, Nikita (Mark Alhadeff), who seduces his master’s wife, Anisya (Angela Reed), and then participates in the master’s murder. Tiring quickly of Anisya, Nikita then has an affair with his step-daughter, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy he handles in the most horrific way imaginable.

The play runs nearly three hours, but its propulsive story line and escalating intensity make it seem much shorter.

Unfortunately, it’s also more than a little heavy-handed, lacking the rich texture of Tolstoy’s novels “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace,” or the glossy sheen provided in their simplistic Hollywood film versions. Not helping matters is the director’s blunt English adaptation, which at times seems far too contemporary.

Even so, this portrait of the grittiness of 19th-century Russian peasant life and the depravity it fostered still packs a punch. While the performances are uneven, there is enough fine acting here, particularly by the superb Randy Danson as Nikita’s diabolically manipulative mother, to do the material justice.