Baylor Theatre brings Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” to the stage beginning Tuesday, but not in the theatrical equivalent of an 800-page novel with dozens of characters.
Instead, the company will stage British playwright Helen Edmundson’s 1992 adaptation, which cuts to the emotional heart of the story and invents a dialogue between two of its main characters.
The novel follows Anna Karenina (Rachel Cendrick), the wife of older Russian aristocrat Karenin (Jack McAfee). Her marriage gives her a high standing in Moscow and St. Petersburg society, but when she’s pursued by the handsome — and married — Count Vronski (Jacob Stucki), the ensuing relationship sparks a passion that eventually will destroy her marriage, her social standing and her.
Also prominent in “Anna Karenina” is landowner Konstantin Levin (Lucas McCutcheon), a Russian landowner wrestling with what values should rule his life and whether that means life in the city or on the land — a character that some scholars see as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself.
Levin is loosely connected to Anna. Kitty (Megan Buetow), the woman he eventually marries, is a sister of Dolly Oblonsky (Hannan Rosencrantz), the wife of Anna’s brother Stiva (Nicholas Carlin).
“(Edmundson’s adaptation) puts the two of them (Anna and Levin) together from the start and the question becomes, ‘Whose story is this?’ . . . It’s almost like a dance how this plays out,” explained Baylor theater graduate student and director Josh Horowitz.
Tolstoy’s two characters experience diverging character arcs, Karenina to personal loss, Levin to personal fulfillment. “She experiences love and passion and it rips her apart. He struggles with faith and marriage and finds . . . clarity,” Horowitz said.
The two share a dreamlike space outside of their worlds of family, friends and society, whose physical spaces are suggested rather than detailed, thanks to issues of scale and detail. Columns and chairs evoke palaces and sitting rooms, with a nine-person ensemble adding movement and sound to evoke a train, an elegant ball or a horse race.
“We can’t have a Russian palace here. We can’t have a train,” the director said. “It’s a very theatrical piece — which is why I love it,” he said.
Joining the ensemble are seven principal characters, whose long Russian names in the novel are shortened for theatrical purposes. “You don’t have to know the story of Anna Karenina to enjoy the show,” Horowitz said.
“Anna Karenina” opens a seven-performance run at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Mabee Theatre in Baylor’s Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.