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A new adaptation of Jane Eyre from Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, now onstage at Christ Church Neighborhood House, hollows out most of the spark and the angst of Jane and Rochester’s courtship in favor of showcasing the heroine’s inner world.
Co-writers Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch are also behind Tiny Dynamite’s popular The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged, which premiered in 2019 and returned for a successful run last year. That adaptation covers every Austen work with just three actors; Jane Eyre gets an ensemble of 11 (plus a shadowy Bertha Mason uncredited in the playbill). It’s mostly faithful to the novel, allowing for the necessary elisions that cram Jane’s journey into a fleet 150 minutes onstage.
A chorus of Janes
An incandescent Cassandra Alexander plays young Jane (as well as a loveable Adele). Northeast takes on the adult governess. And Alexander also joins a chorus of Janes, who alternately scold, encourage, comfort, and protect her. Her vituperative Aunt Reed (a compelling Erin DeBlois Read), beloved maid Bessie (Kimie Muroya), and ethereal, moralizing childhood friend Helen (Lex Thammavong), along with Jane’s childhood incarnation, become the heroine’s four shadow selves, dramatizing her inner conflicts.
They give Jane a passionate inner child in the body of Alexander, a practical and ambitious cheerleader in the warm Muroya, an anxious, monitory watcher in Read, and a steadfast conscience in Thammavong. These fluid performances, beautifully characterized under MacMillan’s direction, aptly represent the way we can internalize and rely on the voices we hear in childhood, for good or ill. These Janes create a vocal and visual tempest that represents Jane’s own warring factions when she faces crisis, with the help of subtle choreography by K. O’Rourke that lets this chorus materialize and flow in and out of the action.
But because Northeast must goad and compress the narrative in an outsized role that repeatedly flashes between the core action as Jane and narration direct to the audience, the ensemble ultimately feels underused. With its collaborative and multi-layered conceit, perhaps other members of the cast could have surfaced more in an expository role. Snatches of dialogue lifted from Charlotte Brontë’s novel lose their force and focus as Northeast herself jumps in and out of the role of narrator. We’re told that Jane and Rochester love each other, more than seeing it for ourselves.
Uneven casting and design
And while I appreciate the multi-bodied representation of Jane, Northeast is past an age to believably carry the classic story’s core action, despite a heartfelt, high-energy performance. And her passion goes unmatched by a wooden performance from J Paul Nicholas as Edward Rochester, whose mild mien and underwhelming presence lack the Thornfield master’s imperious magnetism and sardonic heat. Northeast has more chemistry with David Pica as the terminally sanctimonious St. John Rivers (Pica is also imposing as Brocklehurst, in a whittled-down stage appearance).
Set designer Meghan Jones’s backdrop is a strange combination of industrial minimalism and ornate molding, with a bright-red structure at center stage giving two levels to the action, flanked by gray curtains and panels. But tables, chairs, and shelves fly effectively back and forth to evoke the story’s many settings. Lights by Alyssandra Docherty and sound by Damien Figueras add appropriate Gothic drama, but projections (also by Figueras) are distracting and superfluous, including cheesy pantomimes of Mr. Rochester’s exploits. Props by Saria Rosenhaj aid the swift, clear action. Drab, mostly black costumes by Janus Stefanowicz bunch and hang cheaply, making the budget seem stretched over the large ensemble.
The truth about a traumatized heart
Naturally, a lot gets left out, including the trappings of supernatural folklore, St. John’s most odious manipulations, and Rochester’s afternoon in disguise (to me, always a welcome cut). But Brontë devotees won’t regret seeing this take on Jane, and MacMillan’s swift and sure direction won’t bog down the uninitiated. The most touching moments of this adaptation remind us that a traumatized heart, with its wary, pragmatic bitterness, is really just trying to steer us as well as it knows how. And sometimes it’s our most childlike self that is our truest compass and most steadfast protector.
A seat at Ferndean?
I just wish that the theater space at Christ Church Neighborhood House wasn’t as cold and drafty as Ferndean Manor (a frequent problem at this venue). On a beautiful May afternoon with temps in the low 70s, we shivered like the moribund Helen Burns through the first act, and emerged at intermission begging the house manager for relief. The blasting AC went off for a precious half hour in the second act, only to fire back up. So don’t go to this Jane Eyre without a proper jumper.
Above: Kimie Muroya, Cassandra Alexander, Erin Deblois Read, and Lex Thammavong as a chorus of Janes flanking star Charlotte Northeast in PAC’s Jane Eyre. (Image courtesy of PAC.)
What, When, Where
Jane Eyre. Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, adapted by Jessica Bedford, Kathryn MacMillan, Charlotte Northeast, and Meghan Winch; directed by MacMillan. Through May 28, 2023, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N American Street, Philadelphia. philartistscollective.org.
Christ Church Neighborhood House is a wheelchair-accessible venue, but the cobblestones outside the entrance may be difficult to navigate. There is a ramp over the curb at the entrance.
There will be a relaxed performance of Jane Eyre on Sunday, May 21.
Masks are encouraged but not mandatory at all performances except May 11, 14, and 18, where masks are required.
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