“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This is the opening line of an 800-odd-page book by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. The book is named after its main character: Anna Karenina.
But there is another main character, no less important than the titular woman.
Constantine Levin, the other one, is left out of most theater and film adaptations of the book. Any time an 800-page book is converted to a two-hour play, some things must be cut. Usually, Levin is considered less important. But in the production at Capital Stage, his role intertwines smoothly with Anna’s.
As the literary manager, Stephanie Tucker, PhD, put it, “By excluding Tolstoy’s other protagonist…they must, by necessity, jettison many of the novel’s major subjects and themes—ones which reinforce those in Anna’s tale.”
“What are you doing here? This is my story!” Anna (Lenne Klingaman) exclaims in the beginning of the play. But it’s Levin’s (Brian Patrick Williams) story too.
In the book, the characters know one another only peripherally, but in a brilliant device to fit both stories into one play, the two characters interact frequently, asking where the other is and what’s happening with him or her. The play is not precisely faithful to the book, but instead presents an impression of the feeling and themes of the novel.
The plot of “Anna Karenina” goes like this: Anna is married to an important public official, Alexei Karenin (Scott Coopwood), who is dutiful, if robotic and cold, but a chance encounter crosses her fate with that of the dashing Count Vronsky (Rob August). The two begin an affair.
In the meantime, Levin is heartbroken over his failed marriage proposal to Kitty (Carissa Meagher), his one true love, and ponders his life, wanting to make something better of himself and live in a fulfilling way. She later accepts his proposal, but marriage is challenging, especially since Kitty is strongly religious and Levin can’t bring himself to believe.
The common thread is love, which is grand in and of itself, but in the grander scheme, “We are not to take ‘Anna Karenina’ as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life. A piece of life it is,” wrote Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold. With only Anna, the play is a tragedy, but with Levin, it becomes hopeful as well.
Levin is an idealist, a gentleman farmer with his own ideas of how the world should be. He wants to change how he interacts with his peasants and labor with them under the same sun. Williams brings a sort of honest passion to the character. Anna, on the other hand, is hedonistic, abandoning her husband and son for a lover, a decision which destroys her in the society of 19th-century Russia. Klingaman gives the character an intensity that is almost painful to watch but beautiful in its tragedy.
In response to Anna’s tragic destruction, one might be tempted to say, as a lady at a party says at one point, that “they ought to vaccinate against love—like smallpox!”
But without the tragedy of Anna’s forbidden love, we would have none of the beauty of Levin’s love for Kitty.
“Anna Karenina” plays at Capital Stage (2215 J St.) through Nov. 23. It is performed on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (916) 995-5464, or at capstage.org.