Chicago Reviews

Lifeline’s “Anna Karenina” Shines, Though Act Two Proves Daunting

★★★

Review by Joe De Rosa; photos by Suzanne Plunkett

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

So begins Anna Karenina, a Promethean study of the heart’s capacity for profound love, reckless passion, hopeless frailty, and torturous self-doubt. As a work of realistic fiction, Anna Karenina is a masterpiece. And, every bit as seductive as the novel’s main character, Anna’s siren song has called out to artists, luring them to bring her tragic story to the stage. Yet, this call–like so many of the choices Anna makes throughout her story–is fraught with the potential for disaster.

More on this later.

Lifeline’s Anna Karenina has no shortage of redeeming qualities. The ensemble cast and crew are teeming with talent, and, from the arrival of the first train that begins the play, it’s clear that they’ve wholeheartedly leapt into the task of bringing Anna to the stage. From the stage design to the litany of strong performances by the ensemble cast, to the flawless direction of Amanda Link and her captivating use of space, sound, light, and set, the play is, by turns, creative, arresting, heartbreaking, and transporting.  

The adaptation by ensemble member Jessica Wright Buha’s reflects what must have been a daunting task: to whittle a 900+ page odyssey of life, love, and marriage in late 19th century Russia down to a 2 ½ hour theater experience. Yet, throughout the first act, from her first moment onstage when Anna says goodbye to her young son, Seryohza–brought to life as a puppet, artfully designed by Stephanie Diaz and voiced by Michele Stein–to her fateful decision to leave her family, Buha’s adaptation puts Anna’s deeply passionate, intelligent, profoundly conflicted soul on full display. Ilse Zacharias’s take on the role boils over with energy and emotion as she grows more compelling, complex, and beautifully conflicted with each scene.    

Anna’s trip to Moscow is a mission to save the marriage of her brother Stiva (Dan Cobbler), who has been unfaithful to his wife Dolly (Aneisa Hicks). Cobbler is excellent as the unrepentant, unapologetic Stiva, while Hicks gives a solid performance as the scorned wife who chooses to make it work when faced with nothing but uncertainty for herself and her children. But her life changes course when she meets Count Vronsky (Eric Gerard), a rich, charming, virile, man in uniform, with no qualms about ditching his young love interest, Kitty (Brandi Lee), and throwing himself, body and soul, at a married woman. Gerard is true to the part, though at times, in both the novel and play, it’s difficult to tell what deeper motivation drives his character–or maybe it’s really not that complicated.

Nonetheless, Vronsky follows Anna back to her home in Petersburg–where she has returned to Seryosha and her husband, the utterly moral but hopelessly distant Karenin, expertly played by Michael Reyes. Vronsky and Anna begin a passionate affair that changes the course of their lives. Anna soon finds that her love for Vronsky is impossible to deny or hide. She confesses her affair and reveals she is pregnant with Vronsky’s child. Following her daughter’s birth, Anna is brought to the brink of death by a fever, and she calls both men to her bedside. In an unexpected hallucinatory soliloquy, she seemingly chooses her husband Karenin, recognizing his inherent goodness. But after her recovery, Vronsky’s attempted suicide prompts Anna to leave her husband and son and run away with her lover.

Running parallel to Anna’s tempestuous affair with Vronsky is the story of the engagement and marriage of Levin and Kitty, played by Dan Granata and Brandi Lee. Cast in the role of the stable couple, Granata and Lee shine together as he exhibits Levin’s growing self-doubt and questioning while she demonstrates Kitty’s countervailing certainty and strength.

Levin travels to Moscow to ask Kitty to marry him, but she, like many, is smitten with Vronsky, so she initially rejects Levin’s proposal.  

But, later, the two reconcile after Levin learns that Kitty has been utterly forgotten by Vronsky and has taken ill with heartbreak. He arranges to meet her again and she asks for Levin’s forgiveness. He wastes no time in telling her that he can both “forgive and forget”. What follows should be a relatively mundane marriage, at least compared to the firestorm Anna and Vronsky have plunged into, but, as it turns out, the relationship still provides Levin with more than enough potential for intense emotional searching, self-loathing, and existential crisis.

And all of this before intermission.

Herein lies the potential for disaster.

Tolstoy once described Anna Karenina as his first “true” novel. The stories of Anna and Levin challenge us to abandon the urge to make simple judgments and grow in our humanity as we come to grips with the way our inherent virtues and best intentions co-mingle with deep desires that threaten to unravel our lives.

Tolstoy’s characters are absolutely compelling. We dive deep into their minds. We watch as they make their way through relatively minor moments and small, insignificant decisions. We bear witness to their redeeming qualities and eccentricities. So when Anna does something that might seem utterly crazy–like leave the son she adores and husband she admits is good man–we, somehow, get it. And when Levin–who we’ve watched build a life pretty close to the one he always imagined–is making his way through yet another self-imposed existential crisis… we get it.

Why do we get it? Because we have mowed the lawn with him for six pages earlier in the book. Honestly, Tolstoy devotes an entire chapter to describing Levin scything the grass with the peasants while he thinks about his life. So we know he likes to think about stuff because we’ve seen him do it before. And it all pays off. We are richly rewarded. We have been on their journey, so we understand why they do what they do, even when we don’t agree with them. In the end, Levin does what Anna fails to do: he comes to grips with his life. He decides to live, and he tries not to worry so much about the parts of his life he can’t fix.

Unfortunately, the problem for Lifeline’s Anna Karenina is that there’s not enough time. In an effort to stay faithful to the book in the second act, the play cherry picks the most dramatic decisions, but doesn’t give time for the context that allows these choices to make sense, so the play moves at a breakneck pace through a series of nakedly raw emotional moments that, at times, don’t add up. Midway through the act, the energy and emotion of the first act have waned. Vronsky seems boorish and angry, Anna appears hopelessly lost, Levin is incessantly whining for no discernible reason, and we feel sorry for poor Kitty who has to put up with him. The performances are still strong, but without context, the play descends into a study in anxiety, self-loathing, and poor decision making, as the characters hurtle ever deeper into largely avoidable misery.

Still, even with the rocky second act, this production shows genuine courage. What’s lost in terms of Tolstoy’s “truth”, is made up for by bravery, fine performances, style and overall production value. While it’s tough to imagine what it must be like to try to adapt a book as complex and consequential as Anna Karenina, it’s equally tough not to admire the writer, director, cast and crew for throwing caution to the wind and going for it. And considering there are more than a few genuinely wonderful moments, not to mention great performances, to be found in the play, it’s definitely worth it.

Anna Karenina is now playing at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. in Chicago, until April 8. Performance times vary; check website. Tickets are available from Lifeline Theatre. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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