The Milwaukee Rep's beautiful version of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel offers a stripped-down vision that is rich in emotion and character.
In her iconic and beloved novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë gives her readers many gifts: the romantic isolation of rural Yorkshire, the journey of a girl blossoming into adulthood, the passionate exchanges of people sensing their soul mate at hand. But like any novelist, words are her medium. She saturates us in description, event, and brilliant dialogue, but the physical faces of the story exist only in our imagination.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of Jane Eyre is full of great faces—animated, evocative, enigmatic faces. Which is to say it is beautifully and brilliantly acted. A co-production with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, director KJ Sanchez’s staging comes to Milwaukee after a four-week run there, and the actors have obviously grown into their performances and bring Brontë’s characters to full-blooded life.
Keep your eye on Margaret Ivey (Jane), for example, as if you had a choice. Jane is at the center of the story, of course. But as an orphaned girl of the lower classes, she is at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and spends more of her time reacting to others rather than stepping forward herself. In Ivey’s performance, however, there is never doubt that there is a keen mind and large, heroic heart behind Jane’s deference and her slowly blooming independence.
Then turn your attention to Michael Sharon, a commanding presence as Rochester, but clearly playing at his authority and power while struggling with his secretive past. When the two of them play a scene together, there’s always a chess match beneath the banter, and one of the joys of the production is watching the proprieties and rigid social order fall away to reveal the warm, human emotions that lie beneath.
Polly Teale’s adaptation of the 600-page novel—first staged in 2006 by England’s Shared Experience Theater Company—is necessarily reductive. But Teale enriches the dynamics of the story even as she compresses into a single theatrical evening. Here, the mysterious madwoman in the attic—Bertha—becomes Jane’s doppelganger. Acted with striking physicality by Rin Allen, Bertha is always on stage—reacting, rebelling, giving Jane’s buffeted spirit a physical presence.
Director Sanchez gives her lead actors a rich environment in which to act their story. Kris Stone’s set is a simple set of ramps and stairs, but the performances give them colorful life. Each member of the ensemble—Damian Baldet, Rebecca Hirota, Tina Stafford, Christine Toy Johnson, and Andy Paterson—plays multiple roles, as well as providing music to accompany the scenes. Hirota, in particular, is worth mentioning for her gleeful sketch of Rochester’s ward, Adele. In the novel, Adele is all but absent. But Teale brings her character forward, giving her an irrepressible energy and joy that is mere annoyance to the bulk of Victorian society. She, perhaps, is another of Jane’s spiritual doppelgangers, the image of a girl free to assert herself and find her joy, even in a world that sets itself against such enlightened journeys.
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