nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
April 23, 2007
Jane Eyre is a novel about which many women are passionate, really passionate. It would not be unfair to say that some of us feel almost proprietary about it. So when an adaptation makes distinct choices in the telling of that tale which deviate fundamentally from the novel, well, you might just say "them there's fightin' words." Now the Acting Company's extremely fine production is very much worth seeing—but it also uses an adaptation that will provoke furious debate among fans of the novel. When it is as well done as this production is, this makes for great theater on a number of levels: the show is actively engaging, the story eludes preconceptions, and there is plenty, oh plenty, to discuss afterwards.
Obviously there is much I don't care for about this adaptation, so first let's consider the many merits. This Jane Eyre has a wonderful cast. Jane is played with a strong, elegant sincerity by Hannah Cabell. She goes after her questions and is utterly believable as a person whose ideals are core to her being. Her Rochester, Christopher Oden, gives an excellent portrayal of the original "thinking woman's bastard." He has enough edge to match Jane's strong will, but is neither too romantic to be confused with Heathcliff nor too refined to be seen as completely comfortable in more frivolous society. Overall, the people of Jane's world are well served by the distinct performances of an agile, charming, and active cast (particularly Kelley Curran and Liv Rooth), with excellent dialect work overseen by Gillian Lane-Plescia. Neil Patel's set is at once spare and complete, centering on a portable red room, which serves many functions supportively but never overrides the production. The solidly coordinated efforts of the production team and cast tell the story so engagingly and effectively that their merit far outweighs my concerns with the adaptation.
In her version of the novel, the adapter, Polly Teale, posits that Bertha Mason [note: this link contains a spoiler vis-a-vis the plot!] is a figment of Jane's psyche. So, here Jane herself is played by Hannah Cabell, while the thankless combined role of Jane's id and Bertha Mason Rochester is played valiantly by Carie Kawa. While this device does make for an occasionally useful physical juxtaposition of id and ego, it also requires some seriously awkward scenes and too many people involved in the final moment. (Besides, Jane Eyre is a 19th century work—if this character is the manifestation of Jane's id, and we then see that id personified as the certifiably insane Bertha Mason, how is it not implied that female drives are innately hysterical?)
This shadow characterization works well enough at the top. A playful sequence of what seems to be two young girls begins well and is very effective leading into the red room sequence. After being tormented by an annoying cousin, the Janes fight back and their resulting punishment by the quietly sadistic Aunt Reed (banishing the Janes to isolation in a red room where a suicide had been committed) causes a panic attack whose proportions separate the Janes physically for a good bit of the story.
With deft staging by Davis McCallum, things rapidly and evocatively move forward through Jane's stark miseries at Lowood boarding school and a brief experience of friendship there, to becoming a governess at the remote Thornfield Hall where she finds the sense of purpose she desires but also an incomplete understanding of her surroundings, which proves dangerous. It is at Thornfield that what was id-Jane is now personified as Bertha but also is the Bertha of the story and that combination begins to weaken rather than support the work. When driven from Thornfield, Jane wanders until taken in by the Rivers family, who find her a new teaching position. Through St. John Rivers, a new option for the course her life could take arises. However, while I don't miss the actual family connection to the Riverses being dropped, having St. John Rivers portrayed as a self-righteous milksop prevents these scenes from shimmering as an actual possibility and instead his proposal looms ominously as a thing to be avoided at all costs. But that annoyance was saved by the marvelous distraction of how cleverly the set and actors combine to pull Jane back to Thornfield and bring her to Rochester in a marvelous piece of staging.
While the sense of the individual's importance is fully respected within this production, the religious elements (a valid and vivid part of Charlotte Brontë's life as well as the novel) are marginalized and not as truthfully owned or expressed as any other emotion. It's odd that while gay actors are expected to play straight believably (and vice versa), secular actors are rarely pushed to honestly express spirituality—and while highly critical of religious hypocrisy, this is a work deeply committed to religion.
Still, all the wonderfully Victorian plot devices and many of the dramatic possibilities of Jane Eyre are incredibly enjoyable to experience through this deeply creative production and its skillful cast. I may not always have agreed but I never wanted to look away.