The weather-beaten life-size image of the crucified Christ looks over Eugene Lee’s wonderfully ugly set for “Crime and Punishment” like a disappointed parent, witnessing the slow breakdown of Scott Parkinson’s remorseful Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky’s dour, electric narrative of conscience and dreadful necessity isn’t the most obvious choice for a 90-minute thriller, but the Chicago-based Writers’ Theater has produced a sad clown car of a play, unpacking more characters and clever tricks than it should logically be able to hold.
“Crime and Punishment” isn’t exactly a traditional murder mystery — it’s pretty clear whodunit from the word “go” — but in order to structure the novel for the stage, adaptors Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have centered the play on the visits Raskolnikov pays to curious cop Porfiry (John Judd), Raskolnikov’s pursuer and, in an odd way, his friend. Between these visits (and sometimes during them), Raskolnikov flashes back to the events of the case and visits his friend Sonia (Susan Bennett), a prostitute who’s just lost her alcoholic father.
The play’s flashy structural mechanics are a high wire act, but they’re not empty posturing. Reflecting the novel’s interiority, the play is set almost entirely in Raskolnikov’s head, and the writers and director Michael Halberstam have come up with a number of ways for Raskolnikov’s conscience to sucker punch him.
Everywhere he turns, our hero is dogged by highly theatrical guilt, whether it’s simply a lighting change, or a door that opens onto darkness and a voice rasping “Murderer!” Whenever his mind lapses toward thoughts of his crime, the other characters exit the stage quickly using Lee’s rotating walls, but they don’t go away.
The people who prey on Raskolnikov’s every thought show up in multiple editions, whether it’s Sonia’s father (also Judd) or Raskolnikov’s victim (also Bennett). The cast doubling takes on a horrifying dimension when we see the young man commit the crime of the title — and the actress he attacks also plays his love and his mother.
Quite a few Russian writers have had something to say about the Angry Young Intellectual, and Dostoevsky is no different. Where Chekhov pokes gentle, complicated fun (at Treplev in “The Seagull,” for example), Dostoevsky goes for the kill, using the young man’s fiery ideology to blind him to his crime and leave him confused. Raskolnikov’s ideas were so good, and yet he still feels as guilty as, well, sin.
“Do you believe in God?” asks Sonia, but Raskolnikov wonders if such a thing even matters.
“It might,” she replies.
For a play as steeped in religious ardor as an adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” is bound to be, the Writers’ Theater is appropriately humble, even tentative about judging Raskolnikov. He may be bad, but if Dostoevsky’s Christianity is correct, isn’t everyone guilty of murder? If so, can anyone be redeemed? It’s a question that literally hangs over the play in the form of the giant crucifix, and Raskolnikov’s final opportunity to atone is both difficult and unattractive. Does he take it? Can he take it?
Things go dark before we can know.