When Aliide looks out her window, across her silent stretch of rural Estonian farmland, she sees a country sent reeling from the impact of Soviet occupation. Cold-eyed and resolute, she is the kind of hardened survivor who stands at the center of some of the most moving historical dramas. Her role in Sofi Oksanen’s 2007 play — which the Finnish-Estonian writer has turned into a bestselling novel of the same name — has stuck with millions of readers across three dozen languages. The quiet turmoil of one lonely soul, Oksanen shows us, can resound with meaning for many, once it’s given a little time and some devoted space.
The next few years promise both a full-length opera and a feature film version of Purge, but the play’s the thing that concerns Scena Artistic Director Robert McNamara. With some cogent stage design and an overall proficient cast on his side, he’s mounted a mindful, workmanlike production, bringing this play to a DC audience for the first time with an eye for some powerful stage pictures and a careful regard — perhaps at moments too careful — for the coolly-shaped literary rhythms of Oksanen’s war drama.
Purge slides rapidly back and forth through the 20th-century history of Estonia — a country blighted by multiple invasions and the jarring consequences of Soviet occupation.
In 1947, we see a young Aliide (Irina Koval, fierce and spirited) thrown down by two soldiers and attacked for resisting — along with her family and so many other Estonians — the collectivization of their farms, food, and resources.
In 1992 — a year after the fall of the Soviet Union — we follow the older, wiser Aliide (Kerry Waters, coiled like a spring) into a sudden collision with Zara (Colleen Delany), a ragged young woman who appears to be a runaway prostitute, but whose memories of fractured family, abandonment, and sexual violence turn out to be sadder, stranger, and more closely tied to Aliide’s own past than either woman at first suspects.
It’s not shocking that Oksanen saw a nascent novel in her stage play. The dialogue — between the two women as well as among the volatile circle of men surrounding them — is not only well crafted, it’s also heavily stuffed with historical detail, complex emotional twists, and carefully calculated half-secrets. It’s dense and interesting, and perhaps more comfortably absorbed over several days in an armchair than in one evening out at the theatre.
But concentration pays off here, and the design team’s turned some neat tricks to help us along Aliide’s winding journey. Michael C. Stepowany’s evocative set blends interior with exterior, using a deep thrust platform to break open the kitchen in Aliide’s farmhouse. Alisa Mandel’s costumes are smart and cinematic, and Erik Trester works well with Marianne Meadows to create a world whose sounds and lights, respectively, hint at the chillier chapters in Aliide’s past.
McNamara and the cast have a good grasp of the type of flinty determination it takes to play a story like this, and they stay attentive to detail. Some actors’ accents are far more convincing than others, which is surely due in part to the multinational casting. But the character work is strong throughout. Stan Wronka and Armand Sindoni play two roughneck criminals with a thick slather of menace and, at moments, bursts of outright violence. Eric Lucas brings a suitably blithe arrogance to the role of Martin, young Aliide’s Communist husband. And Lee Ordeman, as the handsome fugitive Estonian soldier Hans, helps endow Aliide’s backstory with a measure of romance.
It’s difficult to say exactly what presents this faithful staging from packing the full, painful wallop it should. Heaven knows that such unflagging attentiveness to detail is a virtue, but the production doesn’t ever manage to shock or surprise as deeply as it might.
It’s clear, composed, and concentrated, with nary a moment of mess, and perhaps it’s in this cool, curatorial touch that some of the most ugly, startling, and offensive aspects of humanity aren’t afforded a place to breed.
Still, Scena provides us with a firmly made, intelligent take on Purge, which certainly adds up as a success for a company committed to bringing important new international theatre to DC. And the story does indeed stick in the mind, prickling with questions. We admire Aliide for her clarity of mind, but we stay with her in order to weather, together, those muddied moments when the future couldn’t be less clear.
by Sofi Oksanen
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: Approx. 2. hr. 20 min. with an intermission
For more information on the genesis of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, visit Peter Certo’s feature article for DC Theatre Scene .
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Pat Davis . MDTheatreGuide
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You