BWW Reviews: Voices of the South Offers a Riveting AWAKENING

BWW Reviews: Voices of the South Offers a Riveting AWAKENING

Poor "Edna Pontellier" of Kate Chopin's THE AWAKENING - as "corseted" by society as she is by the habiliments of the day. I'd like to imagine a tea party where she'd feel welcome. Let's see . . . whom to invite? One of Henrik Ibsen's stifled heroines - HEDDA GABLER or "Nora" from A DOLL'S HOUSE; and there's "Janie Crawford," the African-American heroine of Zora Neale Hurston's THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. What about Gustave Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY? Oh, yes, and let's not neglect the movies: Vivien Leigh's convention-daring "Scarlett O'Hara," her foot dancing away while she sports widow's weeds, or a black-wigged Bette Davis gyrating to get out of a small town in King Vidor's hothouse melodrama BEYOND THE FOREST. Now, that would be some group, but they'd all end up smashing the teacups.

Chopin was "rediscovered" in the twentieth century, and THE AWAKENING, once readers were "awakened" to its overtones of feminism, quickly became a fixture in university reading programs (deservedly so). "Edna" is a reflection of the novelist herself. Born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, she married Oscar Chopin and moved to New Orleans, where she quickly found herself a "fish out of water." As if having six children were not stultifying enough, she also, after the death of her husband, had to contend with a tremendous financial debt, as well as an ill-fated attempt to maintain the home and her husband's business. She eventually returned to St. Louis, where she began to write novels and short stories; and in addition to THE AWAKENING, short stories like "The Story of an Hour" (which surely mirrors the conflicts she felt about her own husband's passing) and "Desiree's Baby" (which sharply and subtly casts an eye on racism) attest to the fact that she well absorbed her experiences in Louisiana.

Since its beginnings, VOICES OF THE SOUTH has dedicated itself to preserving those "voices" by a faithful adherence to the original sources of inspiration, while reimagining them through the magic of theater. I've always liked its approach, and - if nothing else - the mission to remain faithful to the source material has always been reassuring. (I think that the best adaptations often "cut and paste" the passages that work; film director John Huston, for example, utilized much of Dashiel Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON in his classic film version of that classic.) Chopin was an exceptional, gifted writer, and to hear her words uttered by a dedicated and talented cast is tantamount to listening to an exemplary audio book.

There is so much to think about in THE AWAKENING. It would have been facile, for instance, to have portrayed "Edna" as an abused spouse; but that is not the case. Her husband is a responsible, concerned man (even if he regards his wife as part of his possessions), but something akin to what might today be described as a "workaholic"; but that's fine with Edna. Unlike the wives/mothers who populate the environs about her, most notably represented by her best friend "Adele," Edna's sensibilities lean in different directions. She has an artist's soul (if not an artist's talents), and she desperately seeks for a release valve for her suppressed desires. If only she shared the liberating gifts of the pianist she admires (a prickly performance by Anne Marie Caskey), someone who, by nature of her gifts, has been given "the green light" to stray from the normal restrictions placed upon women in society. Failing in that regard, Edna then sees in the attentive "Robert" not only a release for sexual fulfillment, but perhaps an escape from her prison of conformity. Unfortunately, she plays a losing hand there.

One of the remarkable aspects of Chopin (and of this production) is the courage to let the onlooker think and judge for him/herself; in short, there are no judgment calls. Like "Nora" in A DOLL'S HOUSE, the heroine is ready to jettison her very children (though she is not without feeling for them; moreover, she has no justifiable reason to be unfaithful to her husband). In itself, that could be very shocking for audiences today, much less for readers in the late 19th century. At one point she exclaims that she is willing to surrender anything for her children - except her self. What that is exactly, is not clear - even to Edna. In her thrashing about to extricate herself from family and conventions, she takes steps not unlike a tipsy traveler through a mine field. Time after time, family and friends try to rein her in, but she will not be restrained. Even "Mademoiselle Reisz," the wizened pianist who seems to represent the independence Edna covets, tries to explain that it takes powerful wings to soar above convention.

You want to sympathize with Edna, and yet, it's a testament to Chopin's talents and to the interpretation here that you find doing so a challenge. Director Swaine Kaui, assisted by Hunter Reed, shows a determination to remain true to the spirit of Chopin's bold little classic, and the adaptation by Rebecca Chace, conceived by Jane Jones, Myra Platt, and Chace herself for BOOK IT REPERTORY THEATRE, is as faithful a limning of the original as one would want. Moreover, it has been enhanced by snatches of music (everything from Cajun songs to Chopin), unexpected choreography (at one point, the castmates about Edna move as if they are cogs in a societal machine), pantomime (there's an impressive and amusing little bit when "Mademoiselle LeBrun is spinning), etc. In short, this stage is alive.

As the heroine, the handsome Alice Berry (who resembles a young Colleen Dewhurst) more than does justice to the part; she's like a sleeping princess who has been awakened and can't quite reconcile herself to the reality and possibilities about her. While she wants to step outside the constraints of family and society, she genuinely seems not to want to offend others; moreover, she is aware of what she lacks in the role of wife and mother, and she is almost envious of the assured "Adele" (confidently played by Amelia Sutherland). Berry never hits a false note in playing a character who constantly hits them. As the perplexed husband "Leonce," John Fulghum retains our sympathy; after all, it's not his fault that the marriage has begun to unravel. (In point of fact, Edna married him as an act of revolt against her father - almost on a whim.) There's an interesting scene when he comes to summon Edna to bed and, when she finally goes in, remains awake and troubled. Then, of course, there is "Robert," and Ian Goodwin (whose good looks and sleepy eyes have made him not only a bonbon for Edna, but a leftover for Adele). Goodwin's realization of his own predicament and the potential damage he will cause if he follows his desires is well conveyed.

The entire cast (many in dual roles) is splendid. The excellent John Dylan Atkins pokes about convincingly as "Dr. Mandelet," alarmed by the secrets that slip through cracks; however, he is most enjoyable as the seductive, womanizing "Alcee" (the moment he softly connects with Edna, you could hear a pin - or peignoir - drop); and the aforementioned Ms. Caskey adeptly plays both a bustling grandmother and a haughty, selective artiste. Everyone, in fact, has individual (if sometimes brief) moments to shine (Emily Childers' "Madame Antoine" is a particularly bright penny).

Keenan Minogue's Scenic Design has clever touches, Austen Conlee's stylized period (if shoeless) costumes are striking, and Elizabeth Tate's Lighting and Sound Designs enhance the straightforward presentation. Above all, there's the directorial skill of Kaui, who projects about as much movement and ingenuity as possible (even Edna herself would sit still for this performance.) With nice piano and guitar overtones by the gifted Eileen Kuo. Through April 19 at Voices of the South, located in First Congo Church on Cooper Street. Photo courtesy of Voices of the South.




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