As German bombardment strands Leningrad, political fear feeds desperation in ‘Hunger’
Review: “Hunger,” adapted by Chris Hainsworth from the novel by Elise Blackwell, at Lifeline Theatre through March 25. ****
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It isn’t the unimaginable, interminably grinding anguish that makes Chris Hainsworth’s new play adaptation “Hunger” so compelling or so strongly to be recommended. It is the portrait – indeed the gallery of portraits – of human behavior in the double press of starvation and political terror.
What’s more, the tale being played out in such graphic, dreadful and yet credible terms at Lifeline Theatre is not some Orwellian fiction but a dramatization of history, the German army’s nearly three-year siege of Leningrad from 1941-44. Cut off from food and water, and under constant bombardment month upon month, hundreds of thousands slowly starved to death.
“Hunger,” adapted from Elise Blackwell’s novel of the same title, reflects the besieged city in the microcosm of a group of Russian botanists doing research on ways to improve crop production. They haven’t been spurred to work by the enemy’s approach; on the contrary, the German advance – which everyone believes will be turned back before it ever reaches the city – comes initially as a distraction from the important laboratory seed studies at hand.
When the Germans actually break through Russian defenses to encircle Leningrad, food grows scarce, then almost impossible to find. Famished citizens begin to consume dogs and cats, even rats. Yet no less a concern for this little family of scientists is a political shift: A competing research team has just won the feared dictator Josef Stalin’s official endorsement.
The disfavored scientists, though desperate like everyone else for food, now also find themselves targeted by the impulsive, paranoid Stalin with charges of spying and other capital offenses — like questioning his scientific choices.
The scientists’ dread of that insistent knock on the door is not unfounded. It can happen day or night: Someone disappears. An ill-considered word against policy is enough. Meanwhile, starvation loom everywhere. It’s an existential nightmare. In short order, the central concern for these besieged souls is no longer plant genetics but personal survival.
Shepherding this chamber ensemble of 12 diverse characters played by seven actors, director Robert Kauzlaric displays a conductor’s flair for musical line and rhythm. It’s not by chance that Lifeline’s fine production brings to mind the tragic, heart-rending music of Dmitri Shostakovich: His Seventh Symphony, which was written and performed during the siege of Leningrad, resonates in the background as these horrific events unfold.
The mix of personalities on view here might be found around any office water cooler – idealists and cynics, the contemplative and the rash. If few in this tightly knit cadre of researchers will survive, none seems better equipped than politically savvy Ilya (John Henry Roberts), a man whose passion for botany also extends to women, never mind that he is married. Roberts’ wary Ilya hews to a center line between caution and self-interest.
On the cautious side, he struggles to rein in his wife and fellow researcher Alena, to whom Kendra Thulin brings a harrowing blend of outspoken idealism and impenetrable naiveté. The more pragmatic Lidia, another researcher and the other woman in Ilya’s immediate life (the lusty and hard-edged Jenifer Tyler), applies all her resources and gamesmanship to weathering the winds of winter and politics.
Perhaps emblematic of the schizophrenic times, every other member of the cast plays multiple roles.
Christopher M. Walsh is stolidly reassuring as the project director who urges forbearance and focus on work. Katie McLean Hainsworth does adroit double duty as a blindered research nerd and an official interloper, the latter an alluring beauty with more than bean sprouts on her mind. Peter Greenberg makes a brilliant reversal from nervous, grimly witty scientist to contained, elegant and dangerous supervisor.
Yet nothing in this carefully drawn production tops Dan Granata’s transformation from ranting scientific critic to dazed, wounded soldier, sent home from the front lines with horror stories that all end with the same bizarre affirmation: “But it goes well.”
Much of the show’s potency springs from the combination of Jessica Kuehnau’s efficient, versatile story-telling set, Kevin D. Gawley’s evocative lighting and Andrew Hansen’s sonic cocktail of German bombs and Shostakovich. I mentioned the Seventh Symphony. At intermission – and I mean during intermission – the music in the lobby was from the Fifth Symphony, the softly sounded, mood-preserving strains of the opening movement: taut, bleak and shrill. It’s an ironic and not at all incidental accompaniment to one’s candy bar, cookie or other handy relief from that first mid-evening hint of hunger.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com
- The play was based on Elise Blackwell’s novel: Read an excerpt
- Excerpt from Lydia Ginzburg’s Blockade Diary (1941-44): Find it at Crisis Diaries
- Siege overview and timeline: Browse the World War II Database
- Read Russian survivors’ accounts: Go to world-war.ru
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: John Henry Roberts as Ilya and Kendra Thulin as Alena. Upper left: Ilya (John Henry Roberts) and the seeds of hope. Upper right: As the precariously positioned research team, from left: Katie McLean Hainsworth, Christopher M. Walsh, John Henry Roberts, Kendra Thulin, Jenifer Tyler and Dan Granata. (Photos by Suzanne Plunkett). Middle right: Leningrad diary notes by Tanya Savicheva translated from Russian, from top left: “Jenya died on 28th Dec. at 12.30 PM 1941; Grandma died on 25th Jan., 3 PM 1942; Leka died on 17th March at 5 AM 1942; Uncle Vasya died on 13th Apr. at 2 o’clock after midnight 1942; Uncle Lesha on 10th May at 4 PM 1942; 2nd row – Mother on 13th May at 7.30 AM 1942; Savichevs died; All died; Only Tanya is left.” Lower right: In harshest winter, Leningradians scoop water from a broken water-pipe. (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #35 / Vsevolod Tarasevich / CC-BY-SA 3.0). Below: An old woman transports a starving young man by sled in besieged Leningrad. (RIA image #244/Ozersky)