If you love Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, you would have glad to have been part of the Wellesley Summer Theatre audience during the brief run of Polly Teale's adaptation of Bronte's novel. Nora Hussey's' largish cast of actors-- Alicia Kahn and Derek Nelson plus Jennifer Jones-Barton, Sarah Barton, Kate Connor, Claire Shinkman, Heather Boas, Stephen Cooper, Jim Butterfield, Jackson Royal, Doug Rainey, Derry Woodhouse, in multiple supporting roles-- was adept, the story telling clean and clear, the spare design and costumes invited memory to fill in the novel's detail, and the Victorian sensibilities were presented without excess or apology. However, if you aren't already familiar with the central character's character, if you don't know Jane's particular voice and recognize in her an adolescent's sister soul, you might find it a bit difficult to warn up to British playwright/director Teale's dramatization. Jane the child is pure victim, torn from a loving home and deposited at the mercy of a self righteous relative who takes a violent dislike to her and sees evidence of rebellion, deceit, or outright criminality in the most innocent of her actions. Such unjust treatment elicits some of the rebellion it is designed to crush, but there isn't much room in Jane's narrow world for a rebellion to thrive. Once past the few scenes of her "rebellious" childhood, Alicia Kahn's outward Jane has learned to be prim and proper. Everything the eighteen year old Jane says aloud and every public action she allows herself to perform is designed to contain the emotional torrents beneath her brittle self control, and conceal the intellect behind her competent and modest service. Eventually Rochester (Derek Nelson ), her employer at the estate where Jane goes to serve as governess to another, more fortunate, orphan, will perceive what a magnificent creature Jane has made of her unprepossessing self. A reader of Bronte's narrative perceives it from the energy and complexity and sensitivity of the prose; Rochester is able to see a brilliant inner self when he looks into Jane's speaking eyes; but how is the theatre audience to know Jane's mind, and value it? For the audience's sake, Teale supplies Jane with an alter ego, a visible embodiment of the wild impulses that Victorian strictures were determined to suppress, particularly in females. Melina McGrew mimes and dances desire and aggression and a desperate craving for affection, and utters the groans and shrieks of instinct thwarted. The brutal schooling prescribed at the time to break down the natural depravity inherited as a consequence of Original Sin, and to produce in the service classes an obedience to authority and an humble and generally contrite heart splits this wild Jane-child off from the repressed orphan Jane: literally, in the person of McGrew. McGrew becomes a shadow child, who acts out the responses ten year old Jane must suppress, and then when Jane is grown and on her own McGrew becomes the figure of the Madwoman in the Attic-- who is also Rochester's irrepressible Jamaican wife, Bertha. This does help us see what Jane's mortified id is feeling, -- as if we couldn't guess from the way any normal American kid would respond to all those rules and humiliations!-- and sense what nightmare of female wantonness all those Victorian strictures were fighting. But Jane's thoughts, her positive impulses and her moral accomplishments, still have no representation on stage and must mostly be deduced. We can't follow the making of her mind, the forging of her strong character. We scarcely see, beyond her love for the sweet accepting nature of her childhood school friend. Helen (Heather Boas), what it is that makes it possible for Jane to be able at last to say: " Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, as we are!"
At least the audience doesn't have to deduce what it is that Jane sees as temptation or reward. Teale gives Rochester the extravagant words any female in love longs to hear, and speaking them Derek Nelson embodies a Rochester to flutter any female heart, a veritable magnet for romantic yearning. The slightest tinge of woodenness or floridity on Nelson's part would catapult us back to the twenty first century, with its penchant for reductive explanations and adjustment through therapy. But Nelson was brave and true, saying Rochester's lines as if they were torn from the hero's heart, and not merely the overflow of a frustrated young author's imagination. My row of middle aged ladies blushed and smiled, and together sighed a melancholy sigh because there were several scenes of trial to come before Jane can yield to temptation. .
Hussy's staging of the aborted wedding and the revelation of the Madwoman
was very effective, and demonstrated that the Bertha/alter ego figure can
in fact convey the idea of a real moral danger to Jane in an unsanctioned
relationship with her loving Rochester -- a very difficult idea to impress
upon an audience in our modern era of domestic partners and easy divorce.
Jane's interval in the missionary household was a little bit less successful,
but important because Jane's rejection of Reverend Rivers is our first
real opportunity to hear her think aloud and test her self knowledge.
The ending was a happy one, a mixed blessing being the most satisfactory
sort for this particular union. The susceptible ladies, myself
among them, let fall a tear and, smiling, sighed again, this time a sigh
of. immense gratification. Ah, romance! Does it get any better than this?
That's not really the question, though-- the question, really, is how many
susceptible are out there? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Enough to
make an audience? If so, then Hussey should be encouraged to reassemble
her crackerjack cast for a longer run, and give more romantics a treat.
And this a stage worthy piece, which can be (and has been) performed by
a more modestly sized cast, may well prove an attractive addition
to small theatre schedules, even if only for the name recognition factor.
If Teale's "Jane Eyre" turns up in your neighborhood, do
consider seeing her. "Jane" will probably prove good company, although
that will depend on the availability of actors like Hussey's,
with enough classical training to carry off the corsets and curtseys and
subordinate clauses while exposing their inner lives in an intimate space.