Political allegories, whether between book covers or on stage, can be swampy complexities because their authors usually want to get into the weeds of specificities. That's certainly the case with Poor Murderer, by Czech playwright Pavel Kohout, which is getting a capable unspooling at Providence College through April 15.
To add insult, its figurative and literal madhouse setting is Russia, the big bully that with other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring. Setting this play in Czechoslovakia would be whining; set in Russia, it's political critique.
Translated by Herbert Berghof and Laurence Luckinbill, the production is ably directed by John Garrity.
The time is 1900, and we are in St. Elizabeth's Institute for Nervous Disorders. The patient of concern is Anton Kerzhentsev, played with impressively modulated skill by Patrick Mark Saunders. Anton is a playwright who is putting on an autobiographical play and acting in it. This is a sort of art therapy, supervised by a doctor addressed as Prof. Drzhembitsky (Kevin Lynch) and a couple of strong-armed nurses (Kelly Smith, Grace Curley), there to grab him if his acting out gets dangerous. He is trying to convince the doctor that he is not really insane. Doing so is no walk in the park, because one of the things he's trying to prove is that he did not kill someone.
Starting out, he is an innocent 10-year-old who matures abruptly when he witnesses his father en flagrante with the maid, whom the boy has a crush on. Anton tells the doctor that he considers the boy to be like Hamlet, who started out childlike in his understanding, not to mention having a mommy fixation. Underscoring this point, now and then Anton quotes passages from Hamlet.
Given this highly charged emotional foundation to his psychology, it's ironic that the grown-up Anton announces that this play is about a man whose value system is grounded entirely on reason. Love, as the polar opposite of reason in his estimation, is an absurd weakness. Naturally, he proceeds to act woefully unreasonably, with willful cruelty upon romantic occasion. His first occasion is with the above-mentioned maid whom, after years of yearning, he has his way with at 19 — on his father's deathbed, no less. He later says that like his father he is proud of "having absolutely no remorse," which he also displays by having another medical school student take the blame for his stealing 15 rubles.
Since we are in an insane asylum, there are automatic ambiguities concerning reality and illusion, memory and fantasy, deception and honesty, right and wrong. Sometimes it's unclear for a moment what is the play within the play and what is actually occurring on the ward, especially when Anton turns away from his play's action to comment to his doctor.
Two theater actors have been brought into the asylum to perform key roles in Anton's life story. One plays the love of his life, Tatyana (Aubrey Dion), and Anton's strong negative reaction to her, which quickly subsides, later proves very significant. At one point, thinking of her he lifts his eyes to heaven and says that he regrets that God made him evil before thinking to make him good. The other actor portrays Alexy (Jeff DeSisto), Anton's mentor when he is a student and closest friend when he is a man. Both actors provide excellent support, even more so for Saunders than for his character Anton.