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Boiling down a literary epic to two acts

British playwright Helen Edmundson is equal parts chemist, historian, literary sleuth and trapeze artist.

All these talents are needed to adapt for the stage such epic novels as Tolstoy's War and Peace and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. The latter was seen in an acclaimed production at the Kennedy Center in 2001. Now, Edmundson's staging of Anna Karenina, which has been performed worldwide, runs through Sept. 21 at the Olney Theatre Center.

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These adaptations showcase Edmundson's ability to craft an imaginative visual language that expresses the spirit of these mammoth - and seemingly unstageable - novels. In addition, she has written several original plays that deal with such contemporary issues as charity work in India and ethnic cleansing.

Edmundson, 39, grew up in northwest England. She studied drama at Manchester University and founded an all-female, agitprop theater troupe called Red Stockings. After several years as an actress, Edmundson found that she could communicate most effectively as a playwright. Her work has won many awards, and she frequently is mentioned as a rising star on the London theater scene.

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Edmundson is married to an actor and has three young children. One night after putting them to bed, she took the time to talk to a Sun reporter over the phone about how she makes the transition from the page to the stage.

Are there any novels that you think cannot or should not be adapted as a play?

I think that any novel can be adapted, I really do. If not by me, then by someone.

So how do you distill a thousand-page novel into an 88-page stage version?

I immerse myself in it. I read the novel several times, and I copy out chunks that I find useful into a notebook - I can't bear to mark up the pages of the book itself. Then, I do a lot of research about the author, so I know what was preoccupying him. I read different criticisms that were written when the book came out, so I know how it was received. I also take research trips. For Anna Karenina, I went to Russia. I took the same 12-hour train ride that Anna took from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

How long does this phase last?

Anna was the first adaptation I'd ever done, and when Nancy Meckler [artistic director of Shared Experience Theatre, a London-based company with whom Edmundson frequently works] asked me to do it, she already had signed up an actress to play Anna. I was brave and young and I didn't have anything to lose. It took me about two months to write the first half of the script, and we started rehearsals with just that much. While we were rehearsing the first half, I was writing the second.

How do you know when to stop researching? And how do you decide what parts of these huge, sprawling novels to leave out of the stage version?

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I know I've done enough research when I stumble upon a big river of a theme that I can use for the play as a whole. In Anna, it's the theme of how we choose to live our lives, whether to pursue our passions and pleasures, or whether we have a greater moral responsibility. Then I can throw out anything that doesn't develop that theme, without having to worry that I'll be at odds with what the author wanted or that I'll change the sensibility of the book.

All novels are narrated, and often the narrator knows more than the characters themselves. That's not true of theater. Your efforts to get around that problem have resulted in some innovative staging techniques.

When you write a play or adapt a novel, you can't put too much self-knowledge into a character's head. But I can't bear using a narrator in a staged adaptation; they're just deadly. If you use a narrator, that's instantly conceding that we can't make this dramatic in its own right. So once I've identified my theme, I have to decide on a theatrical device which will enable the characters to open up and reveal some of the stuff written by the author.

Identifying that device is key. In The Mill on the Floss, I divided the main character, Maggie Tulliver, into three separate selves so they could talk to one another. In Anna Karenina, I decided that Anna and Levin should be on stage and talk to each other for the entire show. In the actual novel, they meet only once.

Most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with Anna Karenina, so they view your version through a kind of filter. Does it bother you when people complain that their favorite scenes from the book aren't exactly as they remember them on stage?

Not really. If the audience were to come and watch me slavishly follow the book, I think they would find it a very dull experience. For instance, I have to let go of the dialogue that actually is in the book. On stage, dialogue has to accomplish more than it does in a novel, it has to do about four things at once. Some passages do work pretty much as they were written, but for the opening of Anna in 1992, I had to write most of the dialogue from scratch. I think people should be very free when they adapt things. They aren't writing a novel - they're making a piece of theater.

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You wrote Anna Karenina in 1992. You've written and adapted many other plays in the past 11 years. For you, this conversation must be like talking about someone you once loved very much, a long time ago, when you were a different person.

[Laughs.] It rather is, actually.

What are you working on now?

There are certain things I'm drawn to - quite wild, passionate stories. Currently, I'm working on a loose adaptation of Gone to Earth for Shared Experience. The author, Mary Webb, is not as well-known as Eliot or Tolstoy; her most popular book was Precious Bane. Gone to Earth is about a 17-year-old girl who has grown up in the woods in isolation with her father, and she suddenly comes into contact with two men. It's a wonderful story, and the writing is so poetic and rich, almost mythic, like Greek tragedy. I hope I can do it justice.

The finished product

What: Anna Karenina

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Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 21

Tickets: $15-$35, with discounts for seniors, students, groups

Call: 301-924-3400


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