February 3-March 25, 2012
Thu & Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 4pm & 8pm, Sun at 4pm

“An exceptional ensemble of Chicago actors at their peak of their games.”  –Chicago Tribune

“An ensemble cast powerfully capture the mix of heroism and ruthlessness required to get through the nightmare alive.”  –Chicago Reader

“A painfully beautiful adaptation”  –Flavorpill

During the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, Russian botanist Ilya is charged with protecting a cache of valuable seeds for future generations. As the weeks turn to months and the city starves, Ilya and his co-workers are torn between their lives’ work, the dictates of a brutal regime, and the harsh realities of survival in a time of war. Consumed by innumerable hungers and haunted by memories of happier days, Ilya must decide whether to preserve his life or protect his ideals. A powerful drama of deprivation and loss, in a world premiere adaptation.

Based on the 2003 debut novel by American author and journalist Elise Blackwell (The Unnatural History of Cypress ParishAn Unfinished Score). 
Hunger. Title, literary material and characters used by permission from Elise Blackwell. ©2003 Elise Blackwell 
Adapted by Chris Hainsworth 
Directed by Robert Kauzlaric

Highlights from Hunger 

  • Dan Granata (Sergei, Pyotr)

    Dan returns to the Lifeline stage following appearances in Mrs. Caliban and Neverwhere. Other Chicago stage credits include work with A Red Orchid (Becky Shaw), Strawdog (Master & Margarita), the Hypocrites (K.), New Leaf (The Man Who Was Thursday and Touch), Factory Theater (The League of Awesome), Caffeine (Under Milk Wood), and Raven (Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Hedda Gabler). He is a frequent contributor to the weekly radio magazine The Paper Machete, and is co-founder of the Chicago Theater Database.

  • Peter Greenberg (Vitalli, Government Man, Lysenko)

    Peter is familiar to Lifeline audiences for roles including Rochester (Jane Eyre), Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days), Tristram Shield (The Talisman Ring), Lord Peter Wimsey, and many others. He is a member of the Lifeline artistic ensemble and has also directed and adapted here. Before coming to Chicago, Peter worked extensively in regional theater on everything from Shakespeare and Moliere to Sam Shepard and Neil Simon, and he cofounded the Actors Shakespeare Company in Albany, New York.

  • Katie McLean Hainsworth (Efrosinia, Klavdiya)

    Katie has been a member of Lifeline’s artistic ensemble since 2006, and she has appeared in many productions, including NeverwhereMariette in EcstasyTalking It OverCrossing CaliforniaThe True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!Gaudy NightTrust Me On ThisFar From the Madding CrowdBongo Larry and Two Bad BearsWhose Body?, and Cooking with Lard. Her adaptation of The Mark of Zorro won a Non-Equity Jeff Award in 2009, and she is proud to have directed Watership DownJohnny Tremain, and The Cricket in Times Square for the Lifeline stage. Katie has performed with Black Sheep Productions, Blindfaith, the Hypocrites, Greasy Joan, and Bailiwick Repertory, among others, since arriving in Chicago in 1993.

  • John Henry Roberts (Ilya)

    John Henry couldn’t be happier to be back on the Lifeline stage, where he appeared last season in The Moonstone and Wuthering Heights. He is a proud ensemble member of Strawdog Theatre Company, where his many credits include Old TimesThe Good Soul of SzechuanCherry OrchardAristocrats (Non-Equity Jeff nomination: Actor in a Supporting Role), Three Sisters (After Dark Award: Outstanding Ensemble), and Detective Story (Non-Equity Jeff Award: Ensemble). Other credits include Three Days of Rain with BackStage Theatre Company, Wilson Wants It All with The House Theatre, Leaving Iowa at The Royal George, and To the Green Fields Beyond at Writers’ Theatre (Jeff Award nomination: Ensemble).

  • Kendra Thulin (Alena)

    Kendra is delighted to return to Lifeline where she appeared in Jane EyreThe Silver Chair, and Cotillion. Recent Chicago credits include Want(Steppenwolf Theatre), Pornography (Steep Theatre), State of the Union(Strawdog Theatre), and Harper Regan (Steep Theatre, 2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award: Best Actress). Kendra is a professor in the theatre department at Columbia College Chicago, where in addition to teaching acting and voice, she has dialect/voice coached over fifty productions. She is currently dialect coaching Love and Money (Steep Theatre).

  • Jenifer Tyler (Lidia)

    Jenifer is a graduate of DePaul Theatre School and a Lifeline ensemble member since 2001. Most recently, at Lifeline, she was seen as Mercedes in The Count of Monte Cristo. She received a Non-Equity Jeff Award for Outstanding Actress in a Principle Role and an After Dark Award for her portrayal of Jane in Jane Eyre, and a nomination for her performance as Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. Jenifer also directed The Velveteen Rabbitfor Lifeline’s KidSeries. She is a member emeritus of the writing-performance group, The Sweat Girls, and a teaching artist with Lifeline’s CPS residency program.

  • Christopher M. Walsh (The Director, Ivan)

    Chris has been a member of Lifeline Theatre’s artistic ensemble since 2010. He has been seen on the Lifeline stage in Watership DownNeverwhereTreasure IslandBusman’s Honeymoon, and The Mark of Zorro, and made his debut as an adaptor with Lifeline’s Fall 2011 production of The Count of Monte Cristo. Other recent acting credits include Louis Slotin Sonata (A Red Orchid), Bloody Bess: A Tale of Piracy and Revenge (Backstage Theatre), Journey’s End (Griffin Theatre), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (City Lit). Chris studied acting at Columbia College and is a continuing student at Black Box Acting Studio. He will appear in Strawdog Theatre Company’s Spring 2012 production of The Duchess of Malfi.

  • Tosha Fowler (Understudy)

    Tosha can be seen as the Evil Queen in Snow White at Emerald City through May. Recently, she co-created, produced and performed in Wild Women XXX at the Chi-Fringe Festival. Other Chicago credits include her original solo show, Mami, Where’d my O go?, housed at Lifeline, and working as a playwright with American Theatre Company and DePaul University’s Diversity Initiative. She is a native of Savannah, GA and recently went back to her alma-mater Armstrong University to teach theatre and perform in the two-woman faculty showcase, The Ironmistress. Tosha has performed throughout the Southeast with Actor’s Express, Academy Theatre and her own company, Fowl Brick. She holds an MFA from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

  • Simone Roos (Understudy)

    Simone is very excited to work with Lifeline for the first time. A proud member of Signal Ensemble Theatre, Simone has appeared in their productions of HamletFool for LoveSix Degrees of SeparationThe Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThe Ballad of the Sad CafeAces, and Aftermath. Other Chicago credits include Design for Living and Escanaba in Love (Circle Theatre), Noises Off! and The Melville Boys (Buffalo Theatre Ensemble), and Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai). Simone can be seen in Signal’s upcoming production of Hostage Song this spring.

  • Joseph Stearns (Understudy)

    Joe is very pleased to be working with Lifeline for the first time. He is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Signal Ensemble Theatre, where he has appeared in AcesAccidental Death of an AnarchistAftermathThe Real Inspector Hound, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, along with many others. Has also most recently worked with The Right Brain Project (And They Put Handuffs on the FlowersChalk) and The Strange Tree Group (Hey! Mr. Spaceman!) He has also written and performed music for various and sundry productions.

  • Chris Hainsworth (Adaptor)

    Chris first performed with Lifeline in 2008, playing Oliver in Talking It Over. He then went on to play Israel Hands/Captain Flint in Treasure Island in 2009 and the Marquis De Carabas in Neverwhere in 2010, soon after which he was asked to join the Lifeline ensemble. Recently, he was seen playing Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. He is a four-time finalist in WildClaw Theatre’s DeathScribe: Ten Minutes of Terror Audio Play Festival (winning in 2009 for his piece Remembrance), a graduate of Strawdog Theatre’s writing initiative The Hit Factory, and a frequent contributor to The Hit Factory Presents. Hunger is his first adaptation.

  • Robert Kauzlaric (Director)

    Robert is a proud member of Lifeline’s artistic ensemble. Recent directing credits include Treasure Island at Lifeline and Tartuffe at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival (where he will also direct Love’s Labour’s Lost this summer). Robert is a published playwright and has adapted numerous books for the Lifeline stage, including The Island of Dr. Moreau (Non-Equity Jeff Awards: Best Production-Play and New Adaptation), The Picture of Dorian GrayNeverwhere (Non-Equity Jeff Award: New Adaptation), The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, and the upcoming Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed. Additionally, his adaptation of The Three Musketeers premiered at the 2010 Illinois Shakespeare Festival. As an actor, Robert has appeared in many Lifeline productions over the years, including Around the World in 80 DaysThe Killer AngelsNeverwhere, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

  • Katie Adams (Stage Manager)

    Katie is delighted to return to Lifeline for her fourth production. Previously, she stage managed The Count of Monte CristoThe Moonstone, and the 2011 Fillet of Solo festival. Other recent Chicago credits include productions with Steep Theatre, Roosevelt University, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. Katie is a graduate of the Northwestern University theatre department.

  • Matt Engle (Violence Designer)

    Matt is excited to be back at Lifeline Theatre after working on Wuthering Heights. Other Chicago violence design credits include: fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (Steppenwolf’s Young Audience Series); Where We’re Born (Steppenwolf/NU); 2000 Feet AwayInsignificance, and Breathing Corpses (Steep Theatre); Hot ‘N’ Throbbing (Pine Box Theatre); Marathon ’33 (Strawdog Theatre); and The Gray GirlLeague of AwesomeSiskel & Ebert Save Chicago, and Ren Faire! A Fistful of Ducats(Factory Theater). Matt is also a company member with Chicago’s Factory Theater.

  • Jesse Gaffney (Properties Designer)

    Jesse is excited to be working here at Lifeline for the first time. Elsewhere in Chicago she is artistic associate at 16th Street and has worked with Silk Road, Apple Tree, Marriot Lincolnshire, A New Leaf, Steep, Chicago Children’s, Piven, and Noble Fool Theatre Companies among others. Outside of Chicago, Jesse worked for Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, PA; Stages St. Louis; and The Arrow Rock Lyceum in Arrow Rock, MO. Jesse is a St. Louis native and an Illinois Wesleyan graduate.

  • Kevin D. Gawley (Lighting Designer)

    As a freelance lighting/scenic designer in Chicago, Kevin’s work has appeared on many Chicago stages, including Lifeline Theatre where he won Non-Equity Jeff Awards for his designs of The Island of Dr. Moreauand Jane Eyre, an After Dark Award for his design of Strong Poison, and has been an ensemble member since 2001. Kevin was also nominated for Non-Equity Jeff Awards for his lighting designs of Lifeline’s productions of Treasure Island and Neverwhere. Kevin was the theatrical lighting designer on the feature film, Were the World Mine. His work also appeared in numerous productions at the Bailiwick, Organic, Porchlight, OperaModa, Blindfaith, Theatre on the Lake, Metropolis, Store Front, Loyola University Chicago, Revels Chicago, Midwest Jewish, Taylor University, and at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival theatres. Kevin is currently the Lighting and Scenic Design professor at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and has taught Lighting Design and Technology courses previously at Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Andrew Hansen (Original Music & Sound Design)

    Andy has been a sound designer and theatre composer in Chicago since 1998. At Lifeline he created the sound and music for Wuthering HeightsTreasure Island, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His work has been heard at Writer’s Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, TimeLine Theatre, and others. Upcoming productions include Fallen Angels at Indiana Repertory Theatre, A Little Night Music at Writer’s Theatre, and Troilus and Cressida at American Players Theatre. Andy is an Associate Artist at TimeLine Theatre.

  • Jordan Kardasz (Assistant Lighting Designer)

    Jordan is excited to be working with Kevin at Lifeline again, having last assisted on Neverwhere. Jordan has been designing lights around town with lots of folks including Strawdog Theatre, Sideshow Theatre Co, Urbantheatre, Factory, and Matter Dance. She has also assisted on shows with The Hypocrites, Next Theatre, and Adventure Stage. Recent credits include Recent credits include How to Survive a Fairy Tale for Lifeline’s KidSeries, The Spirit Play with the Strange Tree Group, and We Live Here with Theatre Seven. Jordan is an artistic associate with Sideshow and recently became an ensemble member with Strawdog.

  • Jessica Kuehnau (Scenic Designer)

    Jessica Kuehnau is pleased to be returning to Lifeline Theatre. In seasons past, she has gleefully designed costumes for the KidsSeries productions of Somebody Loves You, Mr. HatchHalf MagicThe Stinky Cheese Man; and Stuart Little. A graduate of Northwestern University, Jessica received her MFA in both set and costume design. Her Chicago credits include Rivendell Theatre (These Shining Lives, Jeff Recommended), Griffin Theatre (Company, Jeff Recommended; Journey’s End), The Building Stage, A Red Orchid Theatre, Pegasus Players, Steep Theatre, MPAACT, Circle Theatre, and Metropolis Performing Arts Center. Jessica is a founding ensemble member of Adventure Stage Chicago and ensemble member of Backstage Theatre Company. She is currently the resident set designer and design professor at North Park University and full time teaching faculty at Northeastern Illinois University.

  • Joanna Melville (Costume Designer)

    This is Joanna’s fourth show at Lifeline. You may have seen her work recently at Strawdog, Quest, or Shattered Globe. Joanna is a graduate of Illinois State University (B.A.) and the University of Wisconsin Madison (M.F.A.) and currently works as Costume Manager for Lookingglass.

  • Maren Robinson (Dramaturg)

    Maren is honored to return to Lifeline Theatre where she was dramaturg for The Moonstone and Neverwhere. She is also dramaturg for the current production of Enron at TimeLine Theatre, where she is an Associate Artist. Maren was an artistic intern at Steppenwolf Theatre and has also worked with Strawdog, Eclipse, Caffeine, Greasy Joan, and Camenae theaters. She holds a master’s degree in humanities from the University of Chicago. She has taught or lectured at the Newberry Library, the Chicago Public Library, and various Chicago universities. Maren is a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

  • Cortney Hurley (Production Manager)

    Cortney is thrilled to join the Lifeline team for the sixth season in a row. Previous production management positions include the last five seasons at Strawdog Theatre, where she PMed a variety of shows including The Master & MargaritaRed NosesCherry OrchardLie of the Mind, and Marathon ‘33Ellen Under Glass with the House Theatre of Chicago; and One False Note with Plasticene. She currently serves as the General Manager of Strawdog Theatre.

  • Joe Schermoly (Technical Director)

    Joe is a set designer, technical director and painter. His design work has been seen around Chicago at Lifeline Theatre (The Count of Monte CristoThe Moonstone), Griffin (No More Dead DogsPortThe Constant Wife), Strawdog (Master and MargaritaRichard III), Sinnerman Ensemble (Sweet Confinement), Eclipse (The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek) and more. He has also designed and built shows in London for The Finborough, Bush, and Gate theatres among others. Joe studied set design at Northwestern University and has received two After Dark Awards for his design work in Chicago.

From the Chicago Reader

February 13, 2012
By Zac Thompson


Axis forces encircled Leningrad for two and a half years during World War II, causing about 650,000 civilian deaths from starvation, disease, and shelling. Elise Blackwell’s 2003 novel, Hunger, centers on a group of botanists trying to survive the siege while protecting their research and not falling afoul of Stalin’s secret police. The irony that they’re starving while studying a food source isn’t lost on them. Chris Hainsworth’s stage adaptation is alternately mordant and mournful, faltering only in its overuse of long monologues to convey novelistic interiority. In Robert Kauzlaric’s harrowing production, an ensemble cast powerfully capture the mix of heroism and ruthlessness required to get through the nightmare alive.



From Chicago On The Aisle

As German bombardment strands Leningrad, political fear feeds desperation in ‘Hunger’
February 28, 2012
By Lawrence B. Johnson

It isn’t the unimaginable, interminably grinding anguish that makes Chris Hainsworth’s new play adaptation “Hunger” so compelling or so strongly to be recommended. It is the portrait — indeed the gallery of portraits — of human behavior in the double press of starvation and political terror.

What’s more, the tale being played out in such graphic, dreadful and yet credible terms at Lifeline Theatre is not some Orwellian fiction but a dramatization of history, the German army’s nearly three-year siege of Leningrad from 1941-44. Cut off from food and water, and under constant bombardment month upon month, hundreds of thousands slowly starved to death.

“Hunger,” adapted from Elise Blackwell’s novel of the same title, reflects the besieged city in the microcosm of a group of Russian botanists doing research on ways to improve crop production. They haven’t been spurred to work by the enemy’s approach; on the contrary, the German advance — which everyone believes will be turned back before it ever reaches the city — comes initially as a distraction from the important laboratory seed studies at hand.

When the Germans actually break through Russian defenses to encircle Leningrad, food grows scarce, then almost impossible to find. Famished citizens begin to consume dogs and cats, even rats. Yet no less a concern for this little family of scientists is a political shift: A competing research team has just won the feared dictator Josef Stalin’s official endorsement.

The disfavored scientists, though desperate like everyone else for food, now also find themselves targeted by the impulsive, paranoid Stalin with charges of spying and other capital offenses — like questioning his scientific choices.

The scientists’ dread of that insistent knock on the door is not unfounded. It can happen day or night: Someone disappears. An ill-considered word against policy is enough. Meanwhile, starvation loom everywhere. It’s an existential nightmare. In short order, the central concern for these besieged souls is no longer plant genetics but personal survival.

Shepherding this chamber ensemble of 12 diverse characters played by seven actors, director Robert Kauzlaric displays a conductor’s flair for musical line and rhythm. It’s not by chance that Lifeline’s fine production brings to mind the tragic, heart-rending music of Dmitri Shostakovich: His Seventh Symphony, which was written and performed during the siege of Leningrad, resonates in the background as these horrific events unfold.

The mix of personalities on view here might be found around any office water cooler — idealists and cynics, the contemplative and the rash. If few in this tightly knit cadre of researchers will survive, none seems better equipped than politically savvy Ilya (John Henry Roberts), a man whose passion for botany also extends to women, never mind that he is married. Roberts’ wary Ilya hews to a center line between caution and self-interest.

On the cautious side, he struggles to rein in his wife and fellow researcher Alena, to whom Kendra Thulin brings a harrowing blend of outspoken idealism and impenetrable naiveté. The more pragmatic Lidia, another researcher and the other woman in Ilya’s immediate life (the lusty and hard-edged Jenifer Tyler), applies all her resources and gamesmanship to weathering the winds of winter and politics.

Perhaps emblematic of the schizophrenic times, every other member of the cast plays multiple roles.

Christopher M. Walsh is stolidly reassuring as the project director who urges forbearance and focus on work. Katie McLean Hainsworth does adroit double duty as a blindered research nerd and an official interloper, the latter an alluring beauty with more than bean sprouts on her mind. Peter Greenberg makes a brilliant reversal from nervous, grimly witty scientist to contained, elegant and dangerous supervisor.

Yet nothing in this carefully drawn production tops Dan Granata’s transformation from ranting scientific critic to dazed, wounded soldier, sent home from the front lines with horror stories that all end with the same bizarre affirmation: “But it goes well.”

Much of the show’s potency springs from the combination of Jessica Kuehnau’s efficient, versatile story-telling set, Kevin D. Gawley’s evocative lighting and Andrew Hansen’s sonic cocktail of German bombs and Shostakovich. I mentioned the Seventh Symphony. At intermission — and I mean during intermission — the music in the lobby was from the Fifth Symphony, the softly sounded, mood-preserving strains of the opening movement: taut, bleak and shrill. It’s an ironic and not at all incidental accompaniment to one’s candy bar, cookie or other handy relief from that first mid-evening hint of hunger.




February 16, 2012
By Stefanie Gayle McCormack

A painfully beautiful adaptation from Elise Blackwell’s novel, Hunger explores survival in the face of morality. Under the 1941 siege of Leningrad, a group of Soviet botanists make a pact to protect their country’s seed collection and valuable research toward sustainable food resources. This fictional account of what happened to preserve the seeds during the horrifying 900-day Nazi attack is not a cheerful tale. Hunger goes beyond simple nutrition and touches upon the very vices that feed our ego but never quite satiate it: lust, pride, power. Specifically, in the protagonist, Ilya, the audience sees a complete character arc; Ilya’s vulnerability is finally unshelled and appropriately symbolized through a small matryoshka doll. Overall, Lifeline Theatre sets up a Punnett square of humanity, with the unsettling imagery of war on top of uniformly strong acting.



From Gapers Block

February 16, 2012
By Jason Prechtel

Adapted from a novel by Elise Blackwell by Lifeline Theatre, Hunger is based on the true story of a team of Soviet Russian botanists struggling to preserve a collection of edible seeds during the 900-day siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany. Bombings, food shortages, and the bureaucratic nightmares of Stalinism all test the physical and emotional limits of the scientists as they are forced to confront “hunger” in its multiple forms, and the unpleasant choices that hunger leads to.

John Henry Roberts shone in his role as Ilya, the lead character. I enjoyed the way he revealed new aspects of Ilya as the story progressed, particularly in the scenes exploring the complex relationships between Ilya and his wife, Alena (Kendra Thulin) and between Ilya and his lover, Lidia (Jenifer Tyler) – both fellow botanical genetic researchers in the same Institute of Plant Industry laboratory.

My favorite actor during the performance was Peter Greenberg, who held three roles as a wisecracking scientist Vitalli, a nameless series of government agents/secret policemen, and another fantastic role I won’t spoil whose presence completely shifts the plot and escalates the drama faced by Ilya and the other scientists. It’s a testament to Greenberg’s acting chops that both of his major characters seemed to nearly dominate the scenes when they spoke. Fellow cast members Katie McLean Hainsworth, Christopher M. Walsh, and Dan Granata also played double-duty, dutifully switching between major and minor characters as if they were new actors in the performance.

Director Robert Kauzlaric’s creative use of lighting and set design seamlessly shifted between settings ranging from laboratories and offices to bedrooms and the streets of Leningrad. Original music by Sound Designer Andrew Hansen helped anchor the audience into the World War II-era Soviet setting and heightened the emotion in the scenes.

The best part of Hunger was watching the drama unfold as the characters dealt with more and more suffering, deprivation, and unhappy surprises. Given the subject matter, the performance did an excellent job of building and sustaining the tension between and within the characters. What I did not expect was the dialogue to be so witty – particularly by the characters played by Tyler and Greenberg, with snappy retorts and bitter one-liners that served to reaffirm the dire circumstances around them.

Overall, Hunger is a compelling, tragic, and believable tale about the complications of choosing between duty and basic needs in a time of crisis.



From the Chicago Tribune

Telling an extraordinary story from the Siege of Leningrad
February 14, 2012
By Chris Jones

The new production at the Lifeline Theatre is, in essence, the story of a group of people slowly starving to death. It is a measure of the quality of the acting here — and, looking at the ensemble as a whole, I don’t think I’ve seen a better acted show at this venerable Rogers Park theater — that you find yourself deeply invested in their plight.

The setting for “Hunger,” in a new dramatic adaptation by Chris Hainsworth of the novel by Elise Blackwell, is the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. That was a 872-day offensive wherein German and Finnish forces successfully cut off the frigid Russian city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) from the supply lines of the outside world, condemning hundreds of thousands of its desperate citizens to the most horrible of wintery deaths, which came only after some of them had tried to subsist first on a diet of rats and then of each other. To watch this tough-eyed piece is to marvel anew at the chronological proximity of what was clearly an act of genocide on an unthinkable scale, and to muse on how this particular piece of history perhaps has not been given the same cautionary place in human memory as, say, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, even though more people died in Leningrad between 1942 and 1944.

Blackwell’s novel places the focus on a group of food scientists at Leningrad’s Research Institute of Plant Industry who maintain a large collection of rare seeds — seeds that offer the potential to alleviate the famine that is choking the city, if only the party bureaucrats will allow these people of science to do their work. But that is not the condition in which this tight-knit and defiant group operates. And so they take a collective vow to guard the seeds rather than eat them. Yet one by one, the scientists get picked off, either by the pangs of hunger, the limitations of their own bodies or moral compasses, or by a knock on the door from the KGB.

Aside from chronicling the historical horror, Blackwell explores the complexity of human needs (the researchers’ sexual appetites ebb and flows with their intake of food), whether scientists must always adhere to the truth or whether expedient lies to government masters are justified in dire circumstances, and, first and foremost, the moral question of whether it’s better to fight to your own death to preserve the potential nutrition of others, or just eat the darn seeds and make sure you remain alive to tell the story.

Hainsworth’s adaptation has not yet been wholly shaped into a workable play. For much of the first act, we’re taught to see this group as collective protagonists, only for the focus to drastically shift after intermission to the character of Ilya (John Henry Roberts), the central voice in the novel but not, naturally, the central focus of the drama.

Rather than feel the pulse of increased, present-tense drama amid the salient questions above, we get interrupted by the badly timed back stories to how Ilya came to marry his wife (played by Kendra Thulin) and sleep with his colleague (Jenifer Tyler). And the more we disappear inside John’s character, the more the bigger issues of the siege seem to retreat.

The piece travels widely throughout the city, with numerous flashbacks of questionable worth to research in other countries, when the drama would surely be intensified if everyone stayed focused on what happened in the laboratory. This is a common problem with new adaptations, of course. The adapter wants to be true to the source, but novels and plays don’t work the same way. This one has yet to really grab its ensemble of compelling characters and make them fight in out in the moment.

That said, director Robert Kauzlaric has found some formidable actors, ranging from Dan Granata, who plays a moody idealist, to Tyler, who plays a sensualist, withering, before our eyes, on the vine. Thulin, whose character is a well-meaning scientist and loyal spouse, is exceptionally moving throughout, as is Peter Greenberg, playing an altruistic sage, familiar with the non-scientific morass within which all people of science must operate. And Roberts, who is on something of a roll of late, delivers a twitchy, nervous, restless guy, constantly watching to see who’s listening to whom, negotiating for power and coming to hate no one so much as himself. It is, truly, an exceptional ensemble of Chicago actors at their peak of their games.

There are, for sure, a few clunky bits of theatricalism in Kauzlaric’s production: we don’t need the drawers of seeds to throb with light at telling moments or for scenes to pop up from drawers. We just need these actors in a room, fighting things out as they try to stay alive in a world of malevolent ignorance.