Updated Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 03:20 PM
We’re having a little boomlet of Russian literature on Seattle stages. An astute rendering of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” just closed at ACT Theatre. Now Book-It Repertory Theatre brings us the classic “Anna Karenina.”
These are deep works, rich and dense. And the 700-plus-page heft of Leo Tolstoy’s novel makes for theatrical challenges of scale, sweep and psychological detail.
In his dazzling, impressionist 2012 film version of “Anna Karenina,” director Joe Wright didn’t even aim for the full sweep of this saga of two Russian clans, both unhappy in their own ways, and the countervailing forces of two kinds of love — eros (sexual) and agape (for God and humankind).
Book-It’s adaptation by Kevin McKeon hews closer to Tolstoy, and tries commendably to give both narrative thrusts equal time.
In the nearly three-hour play, the romantic travails of Anna (played by Emily Grogan), a beautiful Russian society matron, run in tandem with the rites of passage of the idealistic farm owner Levin (David Anthony Lewis).
These story lines run parallel, intersect, even share the stage simultaneously. That works better than you might imagine, thanks to the brisk cogency of Mary Machala’s direction, the lively clip of the script, and the swift role-changing of a 14-member ensemble tackling many more roles.
Dan Schuy’s stone-pillared, faux marble-floored set also serves both narratives well, as enhanced by Marnie Cummings’ lighting scheme, and (apart from one strange note, a merry widow-ish black ballgown) by Jocelyne Fowler’s costumes. (Johanna Melamed’s echt-Russian sound design helps too).
When it comes to realizing Tolstoy’s indelible characters, the results are bumpier.
Tolstoy portrayed complex people — courageous and fallible, petty and profound, rebellious and conventional. Not all the performances reflect those dualities enough.
Lewis is an unusually robust Levin, too blustery before he settles into a more thoughtful portrayal of a highborn estate owner committed to social equality but personally isolated (until he weds Sara Mountjoy-Pepka’s peppy Kitty), and unhappily estranged from his dying brother Nikolai.
In the latter role, Bill Ritchie looks more the age of Levin’s father than sibling. But he fiercely captures the bitterness and venomous humor of Nikolai, a political radical who won’t live to see the revolution.
Blonde and pretty, Grogan looks like an Anna that a reader of the novel might envision. But there’s a wholesomeness, almost a passivity to her presence, and not enough of the restless (if somewhat repressed) sexual magnetism that a dashing blade like Count Vronsky (Scott Ward Abernethy) would instantly sense and exploit in a white-hot extramarital affair.
Andrew DeRycke nails Anna’s cold-fish husband Karenin, whose response to her adultery vacillates between wimpy acceptance and granite rage. He’s a stiff-necked snob you’d never want to live with, but can’t help pity.
Impeccable in his military bearing and suave manners, Abernethy makes you feel for Vronsky, too. He’s a playboy, but not an unfeeling cad. Yet while he adores Anna, he can’t assuage or even comprehend the depth of her grief when she’s lost her son to Karenin. (Joint custody was not an option.)
Vronsky also can’t fathom Anna’s inbred concern for her crumbling social status. As Tolstoy infers, if Anna could let go of that, she might have averted her fateful encounter with a moving train.
Speaking of trains, in McKeon’s script the story’s tragic climax is conveyed in soliloquy by the agitated, drug-impaired and hopeless Anna. A prose tour-de-force, it’s transmitted awkwardly here, in a date with destiny that should stun us.
Despite its shortcomings, Book-It’s ambitious foray into the Russian canon does provide an engrossing introduction to a great novel and may well inspire marathon-reading sessions of Tolstoy’s entire tome.
Now, anyone up for some Turgenev? Dostoevsky? Ostrovsky? Da, bring it on.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Leo Tolstoy. Through March 3, Book-It Repertory Theatre at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $23-$45 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).
Scott Ward Abernethy and Emily Grogan in “Anna Karenina” at Book-It Repertory Theatre.