"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

By Jay Presson Allen
Adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark
Produced and Directed by Susan Kosoff
At the Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston --- 4/97

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Wheelock Family Theatre's choice of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was certainly a daring one. Although the movie version of Muriel Spark's novel was reasonably successful, Jay Presson Allen's dramatization hasn't had much of an afterlife subsequent to its appearance on Broadway. The multiple locations and extended time span of the narrative make it difficult to present in a theatre without sophisticated stage machinery, and the cast of two dozen must strain the budget, or at least the rehearsal facilities, of any theatre.

On the other hand, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is about girls, girls of middle-school age, and the Wheelock Family Theatre has them in abundance, both on stage and in the audience. The WFT isn't just any old semi-professional theatre, but one in residence at Wheelock College with a mission: aesthetic, communal, educational. It exists to bind all ages and backgrounds together through the powers of art, to demonstrate both inclusion and excellence by mixing Equity and amateur performers, by casting nontraditionally, and by producing theatre that combines solid worth with popular appeal Mostly, Wheelock does "classic" musicals, with simple but attractive sets. Kids take on small parts at first and grow into the more demanding roles. "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was a stretch for all concerned.

Jean Brodie is one of those extravagant and charismatic figures who loom very large in the restricted world of a school or a sport or a community theatre. Time and distance may bring perspective: she's ridiculous, she's impossible, she's even quaint. But to those under her spell, or in her power, she is like a goddess of old: a terrifying, arbitrary source of bounty and bane. She draws much of her power from her institutional position in the girls' school where she teaches, but that power is by its nature precarious because she defines her teaching as a subversive activity.

As teacher, Brodie initiates her charges into a conspiracy against the system that contains them both, a conspiracy that must be kept as secret as incest. They gain Miss Brodie's love and approval, they gain access to a whole world of sensation and excitement forbidden to them by the dour Scots school's tradition of duty and repression. But in return they must protect their teacher, and their shared secrets. Once one girl breaks ranks and peaches on her, Miss Brodie is finished. Her power melts away like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

In the course of the play, a sampling of girls come under Miss Brodie's spell, and one of them betrays her. All the complicated story-telling of flashback and frame play the script employs is simply to pull the audience along a narrow thread of suspense: which girl will betray her, and when, and why? The ending is as inevitable as that of Oedipus Rex, but Spark's style is high comedy. Delicious layers of wit and misapprehension frost a plain dark cautionary tale about the dangers of liberty and individualism stumbling blindly into Fascism.

The guiding spirit at the Wheelock Family Theatre is Artistic Director Jane Staab, a handsome woman of a certain age who is a fine character actress, a good director, and an inspiring example of responsible civic leadership. Casting herself as Miss Brodie was a daring move, and I looked forward to seeing what her performance would reveal about the paradoxes of leadership -- particularly of female leadership within an educational institution.

In Jean Brodie's code, aesthetic perfection takes pride of place, eclipsing both moral judgment and bodily pleasure. She flouts the school's unwritten dress code to wear frocks that are bright and flattering, and she flaunts her flouting by staging public picnics and outings for her girls where males dance attendance on her and attest to her attractive powers. Brodie flirts shamelessly, and she flirts with Fascism, too, because she admires Mussolini's Italian art show, the uniforms and the parades and the classical facades and allusions.

Brodie sees herself, and presents herself to her students, as the momentary and imperfect embodiment of the romantic cult of beauty, beauty as muse, as inspiration. Great Lady of the Stage Lynn Fontanne has described how she studied her rather plain face and body objectively and practiced for hours in front of a mirror until she had mastered postures and looks and gestures that gave the illusion of feminine beauty, and communicated to the audience the aura of a woman who expected to captivate. Fontanne insisted on, and got, the collaboration of her co-workers in this project, and was always coifed, costumed, made up, lit and blocked in a way that supported the illusion-- long past the years that are usually considered a woman's prime.

Jane Staab's collaborators let her down. She looked dowdy, she moved awkwardly, and the lowering expressionist set trapped her in a world that is uniformly glum. True, glum is appropriate for depression-era Scotland, in the grip of a Calvinist ethos that is bleak at the best of times. But Wheelock's designers haven't used their crafts to create a contrasting glow around Brodie herself so that she can credibly draw the soul-starved female students and sex-starved male teachers to her like moths to a flame. It is as if the production sees through Jean Brodie from the very first, and refuses to be taken in by her.

The only character who succumbs to her spell when on stage with her is James Kennedy's Gordon Lowther, and he is played as such a pathetic bumbler that his enthrallment is evidence of how low Brodie can stoop rather than of how high she might look. This is not to say that Kennedy plays badly. It is a performance of considerable skill, whose effect is to undercut the play. Neil Gustafson'sTeddy Lloyd is believably a married art teacher who was once Jean's lover, but Gustafson's attitude in the moment is protective rather than passionate. One would think that Lloyd had rejected her, rather than the other way round.

The large troupes of school girls were fine, even the youngest of them, pulling off the trick of a character shared between two actresses who play her at different ages with aplomb. But they were better in the scenes between themselves than in their scenes with Miss Brodie. You would think hero-worship was an odd failing of our benighted ancestors, rather than a continuing obsession, attested to by all those million dollar contracts for product endorsement.

In these circumstances, Staab asserts dominance rather than charm. There's a even a touch of Lady Bracknell in Staab's Brodie. This alters the big confrontation scene with the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, from a clash of contrasting styles to something more direct and simpler, but at least in that instance the scene doesn't suffer. June Lewin as Brodie's chief antagonist has the great advantage of playing with rather than against the production's point of view. But she doesn't attempt to push that advantage, but rather rounds it out with restraint, shading, and a dash of self-deprecating humor. When Miss MacKay is bested by Brodie in the confrontation, it is clear that the headmistress has lost a battle but she will surely win the war. It is only a matter of how soon Jeri Hammond 's Sandy will supply Miss MacKay with the ammunition.

Hammond's acting strength was in making thought visible. The critical intelligence awake and at work in her performance was bracing. There is enough intelligence packed into Spark's story, and into Allen's script, to supply food for thought for weeks afterward -- for that we can all be grateful to Wheelock. But layers and layers of Spark's confection are missing. Sandy is a girl who first throws herself at Brodie's feet, and later at Brodie's Catholic lover, and finally turns from Brodie's free-thinking Italianate aestheticsm into the arms of the Franco-embracing Church of Rome. These lightning reversals slipped by without being remarked, either by shock or by laughter. Is it no longer possible to indulge in such guilty pleasures as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" ? If not in a large, competent, well-supported theatre, then where?