Kate MacCluggage, Patrick Zeller and the Company of ANNA KARENINA_Photo by AdamsVisCom

‘Anna Karenina’ 101: What you need to know

Kate MacCluggage, Patrick Zeller and the Company of ANNA KARENINA_Photo by AdamsVisCom

Kate MacCluggage, Patrick Zeller and the company of ‘Anna Karenina.’ Photo by AdamsVisCom.

Never read the 800-page novel? No sweat. Here’s all you need to know to enjoy Anna Karenina

Don’t worry. It’s perfectly understandable if you’ve never read Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s 800-page masterpiece that some have called the best novel ever written. If you happened to read it in college or on a summer beach, go to the head of the class. But if you fall into the majority of folks who haven’t had the time or fortitude, here is a quick and dirty briefing to prepare you for this winter’s stage adaptation by Kevin McKeon, directed by Artistic Director Chris Coleman.


Anna Arkadyevna Karenina: a beautiful young aristocrat, married to a much older man, whose romantic nature drives her to commit adultery.

Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin: Anna’s husband, 20-years her senior, a high-level governmental minister in St. Petersburg,

Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky is the handsome military officer who sweeps Anna off her feet despite the consequences.

Konstantin Dmitrich Levin: a co-protagonist of the story, Levin is a socially awkward landowner with a philosophical bent, prefers the countryside and the peasants who live there. He shares many qualities with Tolstoy himself.

Ekatarina Scherbatskaya (Kitty): Rebuffed by Vronsky, she eventually marries Levin.


Anna Karenina was published in serial form from 1874 to 1876. The novel has two parallel, loosely intertwined storylines, following both Anna and Levin. It has been adapted numerous times: four ballets, six plays, 10 operas (!) and 16 films (!!).


The story sprawls over four significant locations: St. Petersburg (more European than Moscow, more prone to hedonistic pleasures but cultured); Moscow (more political, more Russian than Petersburg, more intellectual); the countryside (slower, quieter, a place of hard work and spiritual satisfaction), and Italy (everyone’s favorite escape destination).


The events in the novel take place in 1870s Russia against a seething backdrop of rapid social, economic and political transformations resulting from liberal reforms initiated by Tsar Alexander II. These included emancipating the serfs; judicial and military reforms; establishment of elected local governments; the fast development of railroads, banks, industry, telegraph; the rise of new business elites and the decline of the old landed aristocracy; a freer press, and changes in a woman’s role in society. These contemporary developments influence the story and are hotly debated by the characters.


Tolstoy packs abundant themes into his epic narrative: Family, nationalism, spirituality, pacifism, brotherhood, agriculture vs. industrialization, to name a few. There is a strong strain of moral judgment that comes off the page, although Tolstoy balances this with his innate ability to identify deeply with each of his characters. Perhaps genuine love versus romantic passion is his ultimate theme, played out across the more than a handful of criss-crossing relationships. All of the character’s actions have consequences, some fatal, and these are examined in penetrating detail.

While this thumbnail sketch should provide enough knowledge to approach our production with confidence, there may still be time to tackle 800 pages to get a full appreciation before opening. Good luck!

Douglas Langworthy is the Literary Director at the DCPA Theatre Company, where he manages the theatre’s new-play development program. Prior to Denver, Douglas served as Dramaturg and Director of Play Development at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. for two years and Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for seven.

Deeper dive: Take a closer look at Anna Karenina

Gallery: Anna Karenina production photos

Photos by Adams VisCom and Cheyenne Michaels.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Anna Karenina: Ticket information

Anna Karenina

  • Written by: Kevin McKeon, adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; original music by Randall Robert Tico
  • Year: Original novel published in 1877; stage adaptation premiered in 2012
  • Director: Chris Coleman
  • Dates: Through Feb. 24
  • Where: Stage Theatre
  • Genre: Adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic story of love and marriage in Imperial Russia
  • Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at denvercenter.org, 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets.