Hunger at Lifeline Theatre | Theater review

A Russian botanist is charged with safeguarding seeds in Chris Hainsworth’s tense adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s 2003 novel.

Photograph: Suzanne PlunkettJohn Henry Roberts and Kendra Thulin in Hunger at Lifeline Theatre

During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, a group of Russian botanists pledge to risk their lives to protect the seeds that will help the country live on after the war. Faced with government interference and growing starvation, their numbers begin to dwindle; most of the responsibility falls to Ilya (John Henry Roberts), a morally hazy scientist who’s willing to be corrupted if it means survival.

Chris Hainsworth’s new adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s 2003 novel is Stalinist psychological horror, exploring what the combination of hunger and fear will do to the human mind. Andrew Hansen’s Hitchcockian sound design helps keep the tension high—important when most of the play involves people sitting in one room discussing seeds. Jessica Kuehnau’s economical set design transforms the lab for quick scene changes, revealing a bed and door hidden in the filing cabinets. Even when Ilya is at home with his sick wife or in a New Orleans hotel room with his coworker mistress, he’s always in the lab.

Ilya’s relationships with his work and the women in his life need stronger definition; Roberts doesn’t appear too shaken as his character’s world begins to crumble. The ensemble has a firm handle on the scientific material, conveying large amounts of information with clarity, yet when it comes to the more dramatic content, the emotional stakes aren’t high enough. Hunger is a fascinating botany lesson, but the story could use more meat on its bones.

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