Lifeline Theatre presents ANNA KARENINA Review: Beautifully Staged Tale of Misery

(L to R) Dan Granata as Levin and Brandi Lee as Kitty; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of Anna Karenina. Suzanne Plunkett

“Humans are destined for misery.”

Konstantin Levin attempts to explain to his maid why the woman he loves would refuse his marriage proposal. The line appropriately captures Levin’s negative and defeatist attitude that so accurately describes his character.

However, the line also acts as the perfect, one-line description for the story of Anna Karenina. Humans are always faced with choices, and while some may aim to search for the positive and hope, Leo Tolstoy clearly argues that any choice is simply one between the lesser of two evils.

Lifeline Theatre presents world premiere Anna Karenina

 Directed by Lifeline Theatre ensemble member Amanda Link and adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s novel by Lifeline ensemble member Jessica Wright Buha, the play carries many moving parts, but primarily follows the paths of Anna (Ilse Zacharias) and Levin (Dan Granata). Anna finds that she must make the impossible choice between following Vronsky (Eric Gerard), the man she loves, or remaining with her adoring son, but within a passionless marriage to Karenin (Michael Reyes). Levin finds himself in an impossible situation of his own – what will make him happy, and what is he willing to lose in order to discover that ultimate goal?

Set in late 19th century Russia, Budha’s adaptation beautifully captures the misery and devastation of the original novel. Tolstoy writes of individuals with troubling pasts and painful relationships, particularly within the title character, Anna. A woman in the late 1800s has little freedom, and Tolstoy shares the heartbreaking path of a woman who attempts to seize that happiness, and the unfortunate aftermath to follow. Budha’s Anna Karenina certainly is not hopeful, but the piece effectively lays out the story of a woman in an impossible situation, and invites the audience to consider how they would act in her place.

(L to R) Eric Gerard as Vronsky and Ilse Zacharias as Anna Karenina. Suzanne Plunkett

The Design

 Lifeline Theatre’s intimate space offers the perfect mode of drawing the audience into the depths of the story, and creating an almost invasive sensation as they witness the inner workings of each relationship.

Set Designer Joanna Iwanicka’s stage is simple, but effective, with three levels on which the actors can play. The play follows multiple storylines, taking place in various locations from Russia to Italy, and the use of levels and moving staircases helps ease the audience into the understanding of the constant travel and complicated pathways.

(Top, L to R) Eric Gerard as Vronsky and Ilse Zacharias as Anna Karenina, with (Bottom, L to R) Aneisa Hicks, Dan Cobbler, Gay Glenn, Michael Reyes, Jason Pereira, and Brandi Lee; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of Anna Karenina. Suzanne Plunkett

Lighting Designer Diane D. Fairchild and Costume Designer Izumi Inaba collaborate to bring this elegant and dark world to life. Fairchild’s use of dark purples and blues beautifully emphasizes the dreary and mysterious mood of the piece. Inaba’s designs are gorgeous, and play a vital role in the storytelling - particularly in her gown choices for the ball.

The ball is a key scene in which everything begins to unravel. Kitty arrives at the party thinking that Vronsky will propose, but when he catches sight of Anna, everything changes. The moment sets the stage for everything that is to come, and Inaba’s choice to costume Kitty in white and Anna in a gown of red and black appropriately, but subtly brings attention to the danger of Anna’s presence.

Clever Staging

 Link, in collaboration with Original Music and Sound Designer Eric Backus and Movement Designer Kasey Foster, creatively utilizes the ensemble to physicalize the moving parts of the story, from modes of transportation to heightening moments of key drama.

One example in particular takes place towards the beginning of the play when Anna is on a train to visit her brother and sister-in-law. Rather than building a train on stage, Backus creates the ambiance through his designs, and Link and Foster complete the sensation through actors’ bodies, and the use of repetitive and synced movement that signifies a moving train. The ending result is just as effective, but also adds an exciting layer to the piece.

The Ensemble

 Links production utilizes the ensemble as a whole to tell the story, not only verbally, but also physically through movement, and the cast certainly rises to the challenge.

Anna’s son, Seryohza, is embodied in a stunning papier-mâché puppet, created by Puppet Designer Stephanie Diaz for Michele Stine to use in portraying the character. Stine brings the youthful innocence of Seryohza to life, and masters the art of puppetry that adds a magical flare to the production.

Aneisa Hicks plays Dolly, Anna’s sister-in-law and numerous ensemble roles. Like the others, Dolly certainly has her tough decision to make when she finds her husband and father of her children has been cheating on her, and Hicks plays the devastation and difficulty of the journey with ease. On the other side of the spectrum, she showcases a charming and fun stage presence as the night-club singer later in the play, as well as a beautiful singing voice.

Granata and Lee as Levin and Kitty showcase a sweet relationship that is enjoyable to watch unfold. From the awkward beginning with an inability to share emotions to the difficulties of marriage that arise later in the story, Granata and Levin portray the relationship in a deeply authentic manner.

(L to R) Ilse Zacharias as Anna Karenina and Aneisa Hicks as Dolly; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of Anna Karenina. Suzanne Plunkett

Zacharias carries no easy task in playing the role of Anna, but her performance is absolutely lovely. The character walks a truly devastating path, and Zacharias brings each stage in her story to life with an impressive honesty. Gerard and Zacharias share excellent stage chemistry, and the authenticity and hardship that the duo brings to the relationship only adds to the production. It is no surprise that Tolstoy refrains from granting Anna a perfect storybook ending, and Zacharias makes it easy for the audience to sympathize with this character’s impossible situation.

Creatively designed and beautifully acted, Buha’s adaptation offers an accessible and intriguing pathway into Leo Tolstoy’s classic.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Editor's Note: To learn more about lead actress Ilse Zacharias click here


Playing through April 8, 2018

Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 4:00pm

Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with intermission.


For tickets and information, visit the show page on the Lifeline Theatre website.


Lifeline Theatre
6912 N. Glenwood Ave
Chicago, IL 60626

Photo Credit:

Suzanne Plunkett


Note:  An excerpt of this review appears in Theater in Chicago


About the Author: 

Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters. 

Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.


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