Theater Review - Fresh Eyre

Jane Eyre brings lit class to life at Actor’s Express

Seeing the Actor’s Express production of Jane Eyre is the next best thing to reading Charlotte Bronte’s book. Julie M. Beckman originally adapted the novel for Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, which specializes in bringing classic texts to the stage. If Jane Eyre is a representative page from its work, the company has found the ideal key to combining the richness of reading with the dynamics of stagecraft.

The story of Jane Eyre is well known, or at least it should be. Agnes Harty plays the title character, an orphan girl raised by the severe Mrs. Reed (Jackie Prucha) and other unloving relatives. At boarding school she survives both corporal punishment and an outbreak of typhus, the deaths from which are hauntingly symbolized by white sheets spread over the spare stage floor.

Jane eventually strikes out on her own as a governess, finding a job at an underpopulated mansion called Thornfield Hall. She’s attracted to smoldering Mr. Rochester (Basil Harris), the master of the house, but feels like a low-born outsider in company of such society friends as Barbara Cole’s wicked aristocrat.

She also wonders why things go bump in the night at Thornfield Hall, as she hears maniacal laughter and catches glimpses of a strange, wild-haired figure. Director David Crowe makes effective use of shadows, candles and light reflected from hand-mirrors to create a moody atmosphere. Only the moments of actual violence, which are conveyed in slow-motion and drastic lighting changes, prove awkward.

Given the gothic setting and actors playing multiple roles, Jane Eyre favors the two-actor Taming of the Shrew, which starred Harty and was staged by both Actor’s Express and the Shakespeare Tavern. But Beckman’s script stands apart by retaining huge passages from Bronte’s text. Jane Eyre is a first-person novel, and Harty is required to speak nearly non-stop for more than two-and-a-half hours, but her energy seldom flags.

The quirky thing about Beckman’s device is that the other actors speak not only the dialogue but descriptions of their characters’ actions, with speaking parts switching actors in mid-sentence. Andrew Davis’ oppressive Mr. Brocklehurst says, “He turned his head slowly...” “... toward where I stood,” Jane finishes. At some moments it’s like the actors are merely reciting unnecessary stage directions: “Bessie brought in a glass of water,” says the actress playing Bessie, bringing in a glass of water. But as you grow accustomed to the gimmick, you can appreciate the shadings the actors bring to Bronte’s prose. Jane Eyre takes a condensed version of the book and sets it in motion.

Despite the ominous goings-on, the production finds room for laughter. Male actors occasionally play female parts, with Davis portraying an elderly postmistress with a hacking cough, and subsequent references to the post office are punctuated with his cough from off-stage. And Harris captures not just the brooding, tortured Rochester but the charm of the role, especially in the moments when he flirtatiously accuses Jane of being a fairytale creature.

Even while enjoying the first act, you might find yourself asking, “Why Jane Eyre? The gothic setting, however well handled, could come from plenty of other sources, and a book like The Scarlet Letter might seem more relevant to current issues. But Jane Eyre’s immediacy asserts itself in the latter half. As an “independent” woman, the title character emerges as a kind of proto-feminist, while Rochester’s dark secret, represented by the sinister locked door that commands the performing space, can stand for anyone with a skeleton in the closet — or a madwoman in the attic.

And Jane Eyre still has the capacity to surprise. On opening night, someone in the audience gasped audibly at a second-act plot twist. There’s life in the old book yet.