EUGENIA GINZBURG made the mistake of not turning in a fellow professor who had written a book that Stalin condemned. For that offense and others concocted by the State, she ultimately spent 18 years in the Soviet gulag. ``Into the Whirlwind: A Chronicle of the Time of the Cult of Personality'' is a chilling play about her arrest and imprisonment in Siberia. For the first time, a troupe of upstart actors from the Soviet Union has brought this work to the United States, now playing at the Bagley Wright Theatre here, as part of the Goodwill Arts Festival.
The Sovremennik (``contemporary'') Theater of Moscow's production of ``Into the Whirlwind'' and its rendition of Chekhov's ``Three Sisters'' are truly stunning theater. The huge cast - 55 women and 5 men in ``Whirlwind'' - has an emotional range and flexibility rarely seen in American theater, from bellows of despair to the lightest touch on a cheek.
Many American actors have studied the famous Stanislavsky method of acting. But few have learned the technique directly from ``Stanislavski's grandchildren,'' as artistic director Galina Volchek and the other founders of the theater are called. The result is remarkable to watch.
Adding to the impact is the fact that the actors speak in their native Russian (as the audience listens to a simultaneous English translation through headsets.)
Ginzburg originally wrote her story in the form of a long letter to her grandson in 1967. A copy was passed clandestinely around the Soviet Union and became an underground bestseller. It was published abroad, first in Italy, then in other countries, including the US. The Sovremennik dramaturg acquired a second copy and hired playwright Alexander Getman to adapt it to the stage.
Sovremennik opened its production in Moscow in February 1989. Seven months later the book was finally published in the Soviet Union, but Ginzburg did not live to see it. She had died in 1977.
Elizabeth Huddle, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theatre Company, met Ms. Volchek of the Sovremennik, years ago in Moscow, and suggested that the company be invited to the Goodwill Arts Festival.
THE audience first encounters Eugenia, played brilliantly by Marina Neyolova, trying to give intelligent, honest answers to absurd charges. But she's finally locked up for refusing to sign papers that would incriminate her co-workers. We soon learn that nearly all the women in the prison are as innocent as she: One teenager didn't turn in two boys making jokes about Stalin that she didn't even hear. One woman with a smart mouth says she's doing seven years for making two jokes.
Another woman with a well-lived face who never says a word is living proof that all this did happen: She is 83-year old Paulina Myasnikova, who actually shared a cell with Ginzburg.
Eugenia never gives in, not when two of her newspaper co-workers are brought in to denounce her to her face. Not when she's been interrogated for five days without food, water, or sleep. In perhaps the most searing scene, she answers questions faintly through cracked lips. Guards have to hold her up. Finally given some water, we see her slowly revive. Her eyes take on a new, indomitable look, and her sarcasm returns. In a gesture that says volumes about dignity, she laborously tucks her blouse back into her navy suit. Director Volchek excells at giving a play that kind of small, telling detail.
There is a great deal to be learned from ``Into the Whirlwind'' about how to survive under a repressive regime. It's similar to ``Gray is the Color of Hope,'' by poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was also imprisoned in the Soviet Union, and by Nien Cheng's ``Life and Death in Shanghai,'' about a Chinese experience. To keep one's spirit alive in the face of inhuman treatment and torture, never accept tidbits from guards no matter how hungry, don't sign anything you don't believe in, keep your sense of humor. That moral strength is the only thing that keeps one alive.
The play ends on an upbeat note with the women being sent to a work camp, considered an improvement to prison. That's the end of the first three years. Ginzburg remains for 15 more.
``Into the Whirlwind'' runs through Aug. 5. The company has tentative plans to return to US next year.