The excellent theatre production of Anna Karenina at Beloit College on May 2nd 2009 was especially noteworthy for the portrayals of Anna and Stiva, and for the contemporary relevance of their markedly different approaches to living their lives.
Leo Tolstoy’s monumental novel, Anna Karenina, is a rousing condemnation of social class, pretense and ambition. The faithful stage adaptation by Helen Edmundson delivers this theme through emotionally ignorant men and enabling women; scheming and deceiving; words eclipsed by deeds; meaningless sex and unrequited love. Utilizing a skillful story-telling device, the plot unfolds as a running conversation between Anna and Levin, punctuated by flashbacks.
Enhancing this captivating performance are the exceptional staging by the director, Professor Amy Sarno, (mobile folding chairs, and vignettes with clusters of actors simultaneously on stage); and the provocative scenic and lighting design of Professor Chuck Drury. Illumination through small, high windows on bleak walls suggests a view from life’s prison cell which Tolstoy’s characters never escape. (Weaknesses in the production are music that occasionally muffles actors’ lines, and a recessed stage that disconnects performers from the audience.)
Emily Dennis (AB’10) is so brilliant in her portrayal of Anna Karenina that she and Anna effectively become one. That is fortunate, since Anna’s life-experience is the centerpiece of the narrative. Anna is the most emotive and proactive of all the characters: She “lay down” for her husband, bore children, followed her heart, sought dialogue and change, and refused stereotyping. Ultimately, however, despite her exceptional qualities and intensive effort, Anna fails everyone — her husband; her lover; Levin; and most tragically, herself.
Certain lines capture the evolution of Anna Karenina’s trauma, as her dance of doomed romance is never far from the macabre, hooded personification of the Grim Reaper, marvelously acted by Margaret Caneff. Anna’s personal saga begins with “God has made me to love and live.” Later, she reflects that “I’m a bad woman [after committing adultery] but my feelings [for my lover] have not changed.” Finally, Anna falls into despair, saying “I won’t put out my hands to save myself;” “We are born to suffer;” and “People cause more suffering in life than through their death.”
Another major character, Levin, likewise vows to seek fulfillment, declaring “I’ll renounce my whole life…” But Levin is no more successful in finding enduring happiness with Kitty than in seeking to impart to his workers the terms of a new social order.
The normative constant throughout all this is Stepan Arkadyevitch, familiarly known as “Stiva”, adeptly played by Joey Long. Bon vivant, inter-personal facilitator and inveterate optimist, Stiva personifies the adage that ignorance (of a better life) is bliss. He serves as a foil for Anna in his unquestioning acceptance of the way things are.
Stiva, alas, is incapable of recognizing or communicating emotion. For example, he reacts to the form of his wife’s statements berating him for adultery, calling her words “vulgar”; while remaining oblivious to their substance. A hedonist, he is unable to look beyond the pleasure of adultery to observe the hurt that he inflicts on his spouse. In the novel, Stiva comments “Some mathematician has said that enjoyment lies in the search for truth not in the finding it.” The same is true of his search for romantic love.
Stiva’s happiness is for each day to finish as pleasantly as it began. Appearances being everything; details are dispensable. The relationship failure of Anna and her husband prompts Stiva’s enthusiastic recommendation of divorce as the ideal solution; just as a foundation crack might convince a homeowner to abandon her dwelling.
Sergey Ivanovich describes Stiva as “… all movement, only living in society, like a fish in water.” One may fairly compare Stiva to his dog, Krak, “running round and round and turning over in the air”. He is a typical Russian nobleman, and Levin likes him for being a man of his world.
In conclusion, the theme of Anna Karenina is that “There are no conditions to which a man cannot become used, especially if he sees that all around him are living in the same way.” This production emphasizes that Stiva lives a charmed yet bounded life; and while Anna tries to escape it, she does not succeed.