- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

British playwright Helen Edmundson has a knack for adaptations. Her take on “The Mill on the Floss,” which graced the Kennedy Center two summers ago, was an electrifying mix of nervy staging and solid storytelling.

Unfortunately, this knack has deserted her with “Anna Karenina,” a turgid, overheated melodrama. Miss Edmundson has contrived a way to bring together the story of Anna (Valerie Leonard), the bored wife of a stuffy provincial bureaucrat, with the saga of Levin (Jeffries Thaiss), the country squire searching for meaning through farm work and romanticizing the peasants until he realizes that true happiness lies in winning the hand of fellow aristocrat Kitty (Tara Giordano).

In Tolstoy’s novel, they only meet once. Here, they are literally inside each other’s heads in some wacky, arty purgatory where bad women go. Anna is there because (Warning: spoiler) she has thrown herself under the train after torturing herself and everyone in her path after an adulterous affair with the handsome, vapid Count Vronsky (Nigel Reed). Why Levin is there is never explained, except to thrash down memory lane with Anna, to whom, apparently, he has some sort of fatal attraction.

Before each reverie, Anna and Levin say, “Where are you now?” which is every bit as annoying and repetitive as when the Verizon guy bleats, “Can you hear me now?” “Anna Karenina” is one long flashback, and the show moves so tortuously you begin to think that the train can’t come for Anna soon enough.

The stage play diminishes the grand, moving set pieces that made “Anna Karenina” a classic — the first glance between Anna and Vronsky that sets their destiny in motion, the ball where Anna cannot stop herself from stealing Vronsky from the innocent Kitty, and the lyrical scene where Levin and Kitty finally confess their love by tracing the letters on each other’s open palms.

These scenes either whip by or are given no more dramatic weight than every other sequence. Director Cheryl Faraone seems to be going for one seamless evening of passion and deep-purple emotions, with the result that most cast members come onstage high-strung and practically blithering with nervous energy and remain in such an extreme state until the curtain call. But then, you’d be edgy too, if your every move onstage were dogged by a death figure who resembles either a rag mop or an Old English sheepdog with dreadlocks.

Not only is there a blinding lack of character development, but all that shrieking and waving of hands becomes banal after a while. If this show is any indication, in Moscow circa 1877, both aristocrats and peasants were wound too tight.

It must be exhausting for the actors to maintain such a hysterical pitch, and it’s no picnic for the audience, either. Miss Leonard leads the pack in excess emotion, with her dark hair, pale skin, and black dress making her look like she just stepped from John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” painting.

Miss Leonard is quite striking appearance-wise, and if you favor the kind of acting where every line is in all caps and underlined, then her crass frankness will be appreciated. Mr. Thaiss, a wonderful physical actor, is awfully bouncy as Levin. He seems more like a fitness instructor than a tortured soul.

It is one thing to bellow passion and flail your arms all over the place, and it is another matter altogether for the audience to feel the heat crackling off the actors. There is so much hamminess and bloat in “Anna Karenina” that honest passion doesn’t stand a chance.

**

WHAT: Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” adapted by Helen Edmundson

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Sept. 21

TICKETS: $15 to $35

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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