Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Lightning from Heaven: The Love Story Behind Zhivago
Pasternak’s epic novel Doctor Zhivago was
banned, denounced, and a major factor leading to the Nobel Prize for Literature
he was forced to decline. It was also a
love story. Unfortunately, the woman who
inspired Pasternak faced the full force of the Communist Party’s wrath, to an even
greater extent her more famous lover. Their
romance and its legacy also inspired Scott C. Sickles’ play Lightning from Heaven (trailer here), which officially
opened this weekend at the Main Stage Theater in New York.
in various cells in the Lubyanka, Lightning
is told in flashbacks during Olga Ivinskaya’s many KGB interrogation
(torture) sessions. Sadly, she is
no stranger to the place. A literary
editor by profession, Ivinskaya had more in common with Pasternak than his wife
Zinaida. However, as the daughter of a
moderately high ranking military officer, Madame Pasternak was able to protect
her husband when he publicly spoke out against Stalin.
course, the publication of Zhivago was
another matter entirely. Zinaida is
quite certain she is not Lara. After
all, the two fictional lovers never married.
Nor is the Party pleased with Pasternak’s portrayal of the Revolution
and the subsequent purges, so they target his greatest vulnerability: his
mistress-muse Ivinskaya. In order to
discredit the late Pasternak and his masterpiece, Vladilen Alexanochkin, the “good
cop” KGB agent, engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the sleep-deprived Ivinskaya. Either she will renounce Pasternak and Zhivago, or she will proclaim herself
the illicit inspiration for Lara.
a way, Lightning is like the
historical forebear of the dystopian television show The Prisoner, with the question “are you Lara” replacing “why did
you resign,” except it is very definitely based on fact. Sickles alters a detail here and there for
dramatic purposes, but he is more faithful to history than David Lean’s great film was to Pasternak’s source novel. It
is a smart, deeply literate play, driven by the conflict between individual artistic
integrity and the collectivist state. Perhaps
most touching are the scenes deliberately echoing Zhivago in which Pasternak and Ivinskaya find beauty in the
increasingly drab, dehumanized Soviet world about them.
Dickson resembles the Robert Frost-ish Pasternak that appeared on Time Magazine enough to look credible in
the part. More importantly, he really
expresses Pasternak’s poetic sensibilities.
As a private citizen, Pasternak made some problematic choices, but
Dickson makes them understandable, beyond the self-centeredness of the creative
class (though there is that as well).
Kari Swenson Riely is more than a mere victim of the Communist thought police,
although she certainly convincing enduring the KGB’s physical and emotional
torments. She develops a comfortable
romantic chemistry with Dickson’s Pasternak that is quite moving in an almost
chaste way. Yet, when her character
stands on principles, she makes it feel genuine and profound, rather than
didactic (like say a character from Soviet propaganda). It is also important to note the work of Mick
Bleyer as Alexanochkin, who keeps the audience consistently off-balance in
satisfyingly ambiguous ways.
the only historical figure getting short-changed in Lightning is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who ruptured his relationship
with the Italian Communist Party by publishing Zhivago. He comes across a
bit caricatured here, but that is trifling complaint. Lightning
is big idea production, rendered in intimately personal terms. It also boasts an admirably professional cast
that continued on like troopers even when a freak accident in the audience
forced an unusually long intermission Friday night. Highly recommended for fans of historical
drama or Zhivago in any of its incarnations,
the Workshop Theater Company’s production of Lightning from Heaven runs through March 9th at the Main
Stage Theater on 36th Street.
Labels: Boris Pasternak, Off-Off Broadway