The second of two productions presented by the visiting Moscow Theater Sovremennik, “Into the Whirlwind,” a dramatization of Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoir of her political imprisonment under Stalin, carries a visceral power that survives even the creakiest dramatic structure.
Wonderfully acted by an ensemble cast of more than 35, “Whirlwind” creates a claustrophobic nightmare of tyranny, a vision of repression so demonic even George Orwell couldn’t have dreamed it up. The real-life story of Ginzburg (she died in 1977, and the play is based on her 1967 memoirs, though no playwright save the memoirist is credited) begins with her imprisonment during the great purge of 1937. A newspaper editor, she is told to sign a complaint against a co-worker accused of being a Trotskyite; when she refuses, she is given a 10-year sentence without so much as an opportunity to change clothes or say goodbye to her young children.
The play follows Ginzburg as she is sent from prison to prison, alternating between encounters with other jailed women and various interrogations (sometimes violent, always demeaning and occasionally nonsensical) by ruthless officials. Mikhail Frenkel’s massive, barely lit set of cages and scaffolds (a uniformed guard stands in silhouette high above the stage throughout the play) lends an ominous, if a bit rickety, tone.
The schematic, repetitive structure becomes numbing (and, worse, boring) at times, but it does demonstrate the astonishing scope of personalities victimized by the mad Stalin.
From illiterate peasants who can’t even pronounce “Trotskyite” to members of the Socialist intelligentsia, the imprisoned share their stories with an ill-placed faith that someone, somewhere, will “sort out” the terrible mistakes that their still-beloved Soviet government has made. One woman has been sentenced to seven years merely for telling two seemingly harmless jokes.
Although the raw material for a good play is evident, the Sovremennik Theater has yet to mold the story into a dramatically sound structure. The Ginzburg character (movingly played at the reviewed performance by Yelena Yakovleva) becomes little more than a bystander during the second act as other prisoners tell their stories. By then, the horrors of Stalinism have well been established; not so Ginzburg’s own tale.
Still, the play’s final moments are no less heartbreaking, as Ginzburg and the others, their prison sentences commuted to gulag terms, rejoice. “Labor camp!” cries Ginzburg. “What joy!” The play, performed only three times during the company’s weeklong stint on Broadway, was delivered, as was the previous “Three Sisters,” in Russian and translated via headphones.