Review: JANE EYRE Steps In and Out of Darkness at PICT

By: Apr. 13, 2018

Review: JANE EYRE Steps In and Out of Darkness at PICT

"What you are about to see is not Jane Eyre," director and adaptor Alan Stanford intoned evocatively during his pre-show lecture at opening night of what I THOUGHT was PICT'S Jane Eyre. Immediately explaining, he wryly stated, "This is a play, an adaptation of a novel. It is not the novel. Jane Eyre is a rather large book, big enough to kill a rat." The play soon presented itself with the same mingling of the reverential and the slightly self-deprecating- a tone entirely in keeping with the Bronte house style. Though the Fred Rogers Studio Theatre at PBS in Pittsburgh was once home to the fuzziest, warmest presence in television history, there is little of that Neighborhood of Make-Believe left... we're in a very different neighborhood tonight.

A highly condensed but incredibly whole-seeing adaptation, at two and a half hours Stanford's acclaimed Jane Eyre feels like a whole story as opposed to Cliff Notes or a Wishbone special (hey, actors- remember Wishbone, the dog with a better resume than any of us will ever have?). A full-grown Jane (Cary Anne Spear) writes her memoirs of her eventful earlier life, first as a wayward and independent child (Caroline Lucas) and then as a principled but impulsive young woman (Karen Baum). The conceit of three Janes allows some of the novel's prose stylings (I cannot confirm if any are direct quotes, or simply in keeping with the book's language) to shine through. Spear's adult Jane serves less as narrator than as internal monologue for much of the show, reflecting what Baum's protagonist Jane cannot or does not say. It's a clever conceit that works for the material- one can't imagine applying this technique to a more florid, verbose novelist like Dickens, but Jane Eyre is just prosaic enough to make it work.

Chopped into four essential picaresques, the show encompasses four distinct phases in Jane's story: child Jane in the home of her emotionally abusive relatives; her years at the nightmarish, Gothic orphanage; the well-known romance with Mr. Rochester; and her flight from Thornhill and into the home of a kind but overbearing preacher. Though the Rochester storyline rightly gets the most attention, the orphanage sequence contains three of the standout performances; Abigail Gilman, as saintly invalid Helen Burns, comes close to stealing the show, while Paige Borak's Miss Scatcherd positively radiates warmth in a show that is cold by design (while completely subverting this later as aggressively unpleasant beauty Blanche). Of course, attention must be paid to PICT mainstay James FitzGerald as moralizing monster Brocklehurst, who turns the orphanage into a hell on earth but fears the consequences of his own austerity. FitzGerald's performance of this most archetypally Gothic character recalls the heightened severity both of Dickens and the Harry Potter films.

The plot kicks into gear after the orphanage interlude, when Jane is finally pitted against, and ultimately succumbs to, the peculiarly compelling, but gruff, Rochester. Paul Joseph Bernardo has a role to sink his teeth into here, the ur-example of the "man who does monstrous things but is not necessarily a monster." Knowing the story's infamous twist (a twist played with immense commitment and physical precision by Kaitlin Kerr), it can be difficult to see Rochester as other than a manipulative, gaslighting bastard. It is the chemistry between Baum and Bernardo, at least as much as the chemistry between Jane and Rochester, that sells the story and makes us see Rochester as a man capable of goodness or redemption. Baum's Jane is kind and principled, but headstrong, rough around the edges and sharp-tongued; similarly, Bernardo plays Rochester as an interesting man more than a heartthrob: plainspoken, plain-faced and frequently suffering from a physical ailment, yet keenly intelligent and with hidden depths of kindness and devotion that almost balance his nightmarish charade.

Jane Eyre is not a two-person show, and the smallish cast must take on double duty at least, filling a wide variety of roles in this production. Besides the previously mentioned Borak, multipurpose players Jill Keating and Carolyn Jerz must be singled out- Keating takes on three different variations of the "matronly, unpleasant Victorian lady" type and makes each one grotesque but unique, and Jerz serves as a one-woman stage crew while playing upwards of four roles and juggling cockney, Northern and Queen's English accents seamlessly.

On the subject of dialect work among young actors, props to Grace Vensel for her work as Adele, the French girl who may or may not be Rochester's illegitimate daughter. (I asked a friend if there was a distaff term to "bastard son;" her answer, "usually killed at birth," was not especially heartwarming.) Sean Lenhart also shines in the role of missionary preacher St. John Rivers, making this gentle and sweet but gradually possessive man the ultimate anti-Rochester. As the St. John Rivers era seems to be the end of the story, his gradual transition from savior to emotional manipulator literally made the audience gasp- his specific brand of imperialist fervor, combined with his belief that Jane is a gift from God to him, makes him only slightly less terrifying a cleric than Brocklehurst.

Jane Eyre is not Pride and Prejudice- it's a cold, prickly story about cold, prickly people, and it veers as close to the gothic as gothic romance can go before it stops being a romance. Luckily, as both writer and director Stanford has refused to steer totally into the skid, keeping the dialogue fast-paced and finding moments of levity, sarcasm or absurdity among the sadness and dreariness of the classic Bronte "physical and emotional wasteland." Even on a monochrome, all-grey set, with mostly neutrally colored costumes, moments of color are allowed to pop- the red of flame, the extreme blondeness of Blanche's wig. Small lights in the darkness are, after all, requirements of the gothic genre.

A final word, though not so much a comment on the production as on its creator: after the lecture, I asked Stanford at what point his script had been "frozen" and was no longer undergoing textual revisions. Stanford, who has directed this adaptation repeatedly at numerous theatres, gave me words of wisdom as a writer and adaptor myself. 'It's never frozen," he told me. "As long as my actors can discover new things, I can discover new things."


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