“Anna Karenina” Book-It’s Venture into Russian Society

Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” through its study of three marriages describes a society, an ethical system, and human frailty. Immense in its story and in the breadth of its moral investigations, it’s not easy to capture on a relatively small stage in just a little over two hours. Book-It’s production, however, based on an adaptation by Kevin McKeon manages just beautifully by knowing what to leave out and what to focus on.

Many of us have read the book, a heartbreaking tale of infidelity. The beautiful heroine is trapped in a stale marriage to an emotionally withholding man. She meets a handsome, sexually vibrant military officer who woos and wins her. Her moments of ecstasy are paid for with unbelievable pain and eventually death.

Meanwhile we see two other marriages. In one the wife tolerates a philandering husband. In the other a good man, a righteous man loves, loses, and then finds happiness.

Emily Grogan as Anna is luminous. Scott Ward Abernethy as Vronsky, Anna’s lustful lover, exudes sexual hunger combined with arrogance. Andrew DeRycke plays Karenin, the cuckold, as a self-interested, domineering and unlikable snob. He does show some compassion when Anna nearly dies after delivering Vronsky’s child, but it’s clear that the bargain he offers her will return Anna to the life she longed to leave behind.

This production presents Karenin less favorably than Tolstoy did, just as it presents Anna more sympathetically than Tolstoy did. It’s a reading that relates well to the social values of today rather than those of Tolstoy’s day. Anna lived in a world controlled by men, in a society that in many ways was cruel toward women. Our post-feminist culture may not have achieved equality of the sexes but we’re working toward it.

The scene and venue changes for this story are innumerable, and Director Mary Machala has achieved them exceedingly well with minimal staging. Through costume design, sound, lighting, and clever acting, the nearly empty stage is transformed again and again. It’s an ice-skating rink, a ballroom, a racetrack, a wheat field, mansions, hotels, railroad station, even a cathedral. The effects, not elaborate sets, capture audience attention and carry us through this entire sweeping novel.

Through March 3, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle Center, Seattle, 206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

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