Theatre ReviewsTom Williams


Based on the novel by Elise Blackwell

Hunger by Elise Blackwell
Hunger adapted by Chris Hainsworth

Adapted by Chris Hainsworth

Directed by Robert Kauzlaric

At Lifeline Theatre, Chicago

Strong acting plants the seeds of a heart wrenching story.

Lifeline Theatre specializes in adapting novels for the stage and their latest is Chris Hainsworth’s adaptation of Elise Blackwell’s novel Hunger. Director Robert Kauzlaric has cast this World War II drama from the “A” list of Chicago non-Equity actors. The result is a powerful drama of deprivation and loss. Few know the true story of  a small group of Russian botanist who risked starvation and the wrath of the Soviet Russian bureaucrats to preserve a cache of valuable seeds that could rid the Soviet Union of famine in the future.

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

In this interesting drama, we learn much, mostly from flashbacks, of how this group of scientists traveled the world in pre-World War II days in search of both hardy and exotic plants as part of their attempt to produce hybrid wheat, corn, as well as fruits and vegetables, for the purpose of increasing food crop yields. This noble purpose had political as well as social consequences for the Communists Party’s survival in Russia.

Hunger by Elise Blackwell

Blackwell’s novel is partly based on actual scientists caught up in the 900 day siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) by the Nazi’s from 1941-44. We witness how the botanist’s commit to guarding and preserving the seeds at all costs including their lives. Add Communist purges and political intrigue and Hunger plays out as a drama depicting how Ilya ( John Henry Roberts) and his co-workers struggle to escape both the Nazi shelling and the Red purges. In the 900 day siege, over 1,000,000 Leningraders died of starvation, bombing, political purges and murder. As the play covers the 3 year ordeal, their ranks are thinned. Serge (Dan Granata), then Vitalli (Peter Greenberg) and eventually Lidia (Jenifer Tyler) and Alena (Kendra Thulin)- Ilya’s wife die from starvation or purges.

This haunting dramatization of the conflict between personal survival and the common good of society ( i.e. one’s country) means that scientific facts and method must prevail despite a misguided bureaucracy  and the horrors of war. Saving the seeds and their documentation of their optimum use becomes an obsession with the group. However, as much as Ilya is dedicated to guarding the seeds, his basic survival instincts and his political acumen allowing him  to make use of some of the seeds. He personalizes his present hunger with flashbacks into his adventures around the world gathering the seeds and the research on their use. This history give him unique “ownership of the seedlings.

Terrific work from John Henry Roberts, Peter Greenberg, especially as the cold-hearten bureaucrat Lysenko, together withKendra Thulin and Dan Granata give a face to the starving scientists caught in a life-threatening  dilemma. Hainsworth’s script and Kauzlaric’s direction covered the chaotic 900 day siege with vividness, Jessica Kuehnau set design with Kevin D. Gawley’s scary lighting and Andrew Hansen’s eerie sound gave depth and realism to the production.  But ultimately, Hunger is an actor’s show where the skills of the seven players gave the work a base in truth. Novels, indeed,  come to life at Lifeline Theatre. I had to stop at McDonald’s after the show since I got so famished watching those Russians starve.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: February 17. 2012

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Hunger page on

 At Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, Chicago, IL, call 773-7611-4477,, tickets $27 – $32 – $35, $20 students, Thursdays & Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm, running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission, through March 25, 2012

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