The new production at the Lifeline Theatre is, in essence, the story of a group of people slowly starving to death. It is a measure of the quality of the acting here — and, looking at the ensemble as a whole, I don't think I've seen a better acted show at this venerable Rogers Park theater — that you find yourself deeply invested in their plight.
The setting for "Hunger," in a new dramatic adaptation by Chris Hainsworth of the novel by Elise Blackwell, is the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. That was a 872-day offensive wherein German and Finnish forces successfully cut off the frigid Russian city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) from the supply lines of the outside world, condemning hundreds of thousands of its desperate citizens to the most horrible of wintery deaths, which came only after some of them had tried to subsist first on a diet of rats and then of each other. To watch this tough-eyed piece is to marvel anew at the chronological proximity of what was clearly an act of genocide on an unthinkable scale, and to muse on how this particular piece of history perhaps has not been given the same cautionary place in human memory as, say, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, even though more people died in Leningrad between 1942 and 1944.
Blackwell's novel places the focus on a group of food scientists at Leningrad's Research Institute of Plant Industry who maintain a large collection of rare seeds — seeds that offer the potential to alleviate the famine that is choking the city, if only the party bureaucrats will allow these people of science to do their work. But that is not the condition in which this tight-knit and defiant group operates. And so they take a collective vow to guard the seeds rather than eat them. Yet one by one, the scientists get picked off, either by the pangs of hunger, the limitations of their own bodies or moral compasses, or by a knock on the door from the KGB.
Aside from chronicling the historical horror, Blackwell explores the complexity of human needs (the researchers' sexual appetites ebb and flows with their intake of food), whether scientists must always adhere to the truth or whether expedient lies to government masters are justified in dire circumstances, and, first and foremost, the moral question of whether it's better to fight to your own death to preserve the potential nutrition of others, or just eat the darn seeds and make sure you remain alive to tell the story.
Hainsworth's adaptation has not yet been wholly shaped into a workable play. For much of the first act, we're taught to see this group as collective protagonists, only for the focus to drastically shift after intermission to the character of Ilya (John Henry Roberts), the central voice in the novel but not, naturally, the central focus of the drama.
Rather than feel the pulse of increased, present-tense drama amid the salient questions above, we get interrupted by the badly timed back stories to how Ilya came to marry his wife (played by Kendra Thulin) and sleep with his colleague (Jenifer Tyler). And the more we disappear inside John's character, the more the bigger issues of the siege seem to retreat
The piece travels widely throughout the city, with numerous flashbacks of questionable worth to research in other countries, when the drama would surely be intensified if everyone stayed focused on what happened in the laboratory. This is a common problem with new adaptations, of course. The adapter wants to be true to the source, but novels and plays don't work the same way. This one has yet to really grab its ensemble of compelling characters and make them fight in out in the moment.
That said, director Robert Kauzlaric has found some formidable actors, ranging from Dan Granata, who plays a moody idealist, to Tyler, who plays a sensualist, withering, before our eyes, on the vine. Thulin, whose character is a well-meaning scientist and loyal spouse, is exceptionally moving throughout, as is Peter Greenberg, playing an altruistic sage, familiar with the non-scientific morass within which all people of science must operate. And Roberts, who is on something of a roll of late, delivers a twitchy, nervous, restless guy, constantly watching to see who's listening to whom, negotiating for power and coming to hate no one so much as himself. It is, truly, an exceptional ensemble of Chicago actors at their peak of their games.
There are, for sure, a few clunky bits of theatricalism in Kauzlaric's production: we don't need the drawers of seeds to throb with light at telling moments or for scenes to pop up from drawers. We just need these actors in a room, fighting things out as they try to stay alive in a world of malevolent ignorance.
When: Through March 25
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $32-$35 at 773-761-4477 or lifelinetheatre.com