A well-acted production never fully makes the leap from page to stage.
A tricky thing about adapting one of the massive Russian novels like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is that they’re, well, massive. How is one supposed to fit such a wild, wonderful, and ungainly beast into a single play without it being 6 hours long? Unless you’re Bob Falls, you have to start making cuts. Lots of ’em.
On the other hand, it’s that MMORPG-level sprawl that also makes them so enticing, especially when it comes to juicy roles for actors—still a primary consideration for many Chicago theaters. And Anna Karenina boasts enough great roles to fill two shows (or maybe three or four). And if Lifeline Theatre’s version, adapted by Jessica Wright Buha and directed by Amanda Link, leaves a lot to be desired, the play is certainly cast to the hilt.
In fact, the production succeeds on the strength of its two leads: Ilse Zacharias as Anna, and Dan Granata as her foil, the gentle gentleman farmer, Levin. Zacharias brings a maturity and grace to Anna that make her downfall sting all the more, while Granata manages the singular achievement of making simple decency seem fascinating.
Granata’s performance distracts from the fact that, minus a late tumble into some exceedingly Russian existentialism, Levin is so “good” he’s almost unbearable. That he gets rewarded for his goodness with the love of the wonderful Kitty (played here by Brandi Lee, who’s great) is an outcome so preposterous only a man could have invented it.
In addition to Zacharias, Granata and Lee, this production is also well served by a pair of key supporting performances. Anna’s damp sponge of a husband, Karenin, is played with plucky sexlessness by Michael Reyes. He’s an overbearingly polite automaton; C-3PO’s unfortunate cousin. Eric Gerard’s Count Vronsky, on the other hand, is an utter Adonis, but with the soul of a complete drip. Anna’s decision between the two not only feels entirely natural, it feels fated. Who among us?
The story unfolds on a multilevel set by Joanna Iwanicka that makes smart use of the exposed brick walls in Lifeline’s space. It’s all metal and wood, including particle board, and calls to mind narrow, soot-strewn streets and dimly lit parlors. It’s stark, drab and a little bit brutal. It’s also promising a more iconoclastic take on the material than what ultimately unfolds.
It’s hard to see the point of an adaptation with so little point of view. Link and Buha don’t provide much beyond a three-dimensional summary of the novel; early grace notes like cast members ominously hissing and whooshing throughout certain scenes—foreshadowing Anna’s eventual fate—-prove to be the exception.
Even at a length of two and a half hours, the plot rushes by—not with any great sense of narrative momentum, but because there’s simply more book to burn. Buha and Link have proved quite deft when it comes to the cutting, but they never answer that simple question: Why is this a play? It’s got a lot of great roles, but what else?
Lifeline Theatre. Adapted by Jessica Wright Buha. Directed by Amanda Link. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.