Imagine being a committed party-liner, married to an important Communist Party official, and being arrested on trumped-up charges for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. And imagine spending the next 18 years imprisoned--the first two in a Moscow jail in solitary confinement and at least 12 of the last 16 in the gulag.
Even Kafka could not have come up with a more cruel scenario.
Actress and writer Rebecca Schull's "Journey Into the Whirlwind" is a one-woman stage adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg's true story, recounted in two books, "Journey into the Whirlwind" and "Within the Whirlwind," written after she was finally freed (and still not published in the Soviet Union).
Schull's stage version zeroes in on Ginzburg's bewildering story--an exceptional study in human vigilance and fortitude in the face of total absurdity.
Ginzburg was jailed virtually without warning. Her husband and family suffered from the association and were eventually arrested, too. Her three children were sent to foster homes for the children of political prisoners. One died there; another, Vassily Aksyonov, is a novelist now living in the United States.
In her play at the Cast-at-the-Circle Theatre, Schull, like Ginzburg (who died in 1977 at 71), concentrates on the details of the ordeal. She paints a portrait in minutiae, the careful observations of someone who no longer has anything else to do with her mind or time and has learned that it pays to be watchful.
Schull makes us live Ginzburg's trauma by osmosis, beginning by recalling the morning of her arrest in 1937: What everyone had for breakfast, who ate at the table, who didn't, when the phone rang with a request that she come down for an interview at the NKVD (The People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) and how her son, Alyosha, "ran off without saying goodby. I never saw him again."
She remembered the room number--47--on the third floor of the NKVD, the "naked eyes" of the interviewer. She remembered surrendering her purse and personal possessions, taking off the wedding band that wouldn't come off . . . a particularly well articulated detail.
Then came the torture of endless confinement, quantities of empty hours spent sitting on a stool or standing (no one was allowed to lie down between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.), learning to tap messages on the walls, tracing one's initials in the soap powder in the lavatory. And pacing. Two years of pacing the cell--five steps by three steps--and pacing the yard for three minutes three times a week, "guarded and watched."
Schull painstakingly takes us through the mental processes of a very bright woman dealing with her conscience (whether to cooperate with her jailers). She takes us along for the three-month journey to Vladivostok by train, makes us feel what it is to look into a mirror for the first time in three years ("I recognized myself only through my resemblance to my mother"). Details and more details--nothing soft-pedaled, rushed or omitted.
Schull is excellent casting for Ginzburg. She has the intelligence, the world-weariness, the right amount of age but not too much.
Director Beth Schacter has given the piece a very studied shape, perhaps a little too measured. Ginzburg comes across as a woman of such superhuman composure that we remain more intellectually than emotionally affected.
We miss the emotional ravages. As much equilibrium as this woman might have had, no one gets through this kind of destructiveness without losing some control. Schull never does.
As a writer, she has done an equally balanced job of filling us in. It's a beautifully put-together script but a little too well-ordered. The result is too much on one level, too carefully calculated. The interstices want a little madness.
Performances at 804 N. El Centro Ave. run Sundays, 5 p.m.; Mondays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 27. Tickets: $8; (213) 462-0625.