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‘Tis the season for adaptations, and hot on the heels of one stage version of a lengthy 19th century novel at Playmakers comes another at Manbites Dog Theater, produced by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Local actress and writer Melissa Lozoff has created a new stage version of Charlotte Brontë’s tempestuous 1847 novel Jane Eyre — a brave and daunting undertaking, considering the intense loyalty of readers to the book and its characters and the drastic reductions necessary to bring it to the stage. It is directed here by Tom Marriott, and the result is enjoyable, if a little uneven.
Jane Eyre was radical upon its publication and remains powerful today, in part because of the nature of its heroine, which she herself neatly expresses in an impassioned speech to her employer (and beloved), Mr. Rochester. "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? — You think wrong!" Never had there been a book centered on such a character, and even in these times of celebrity mania, Jane attracts us still. She is all substance, and no show. All her power comes from her virtue, her discipline and her hard-won intellectual and artistic attainments. She is self-supporting, innocent, ethical and courageous, and if she didn’t suffer so much for love, she would be unbearable.
The greatest pleasure of this production was watching Emma Nadeau as Jane. Nadeau, not a deeply experienced actress, went right to the heart of the steel-spined governess, giving a lovely performance on opening night — at once relaxed and passionate. She’s good in the early scenes but catches fire (as does the script) with the arrival of Mr. Rochester. As any viewer of the numerous film versions will attest, getting Mr. Rochester right is no easy matter, but Jay O’Berski does a marvelous job. His trademark intensity serves very well here as he swaggers about in a velvet coat, knee boots and a luxuriant black wig. Director Marriott is highly adept at getting real emotions on stage, and scenes between Rochester and Jane that could have degenerated into sticky melodrama were instead delicate and touching.
There are some problems with the script — I would have made some different choices — but the greater problem with the production is that there are just not enough bodies. Too few actors play too many roles. Dana Marks makes a fine mad woman in the attic — but is not effective with her caricature of the child Adele. Each of the women had one more role than we could keep track of, but the lack of men causes real confusion. Jane Eyre is not just a story of a remarkable young woman but a study in types of men and in what comprises a good or heroic man. Mr. Rochester needs the contrast with these other male characters in order for us to understand and evaluate him and Jane’s love for him — yet they are all scripted rather slightly and played by one actor, Dan Sipp. This is irritating in the case of the coercive St. John Rivers but particularly unfortunate in the case of the character Richard Mason. Although he appears in only two scenes, he is the catalyst, precipitating revelation and crisis. In the great church scene, Sipp plays both the preacher and Mason, come to declare an impediment to the wedding of Rochester and Jane. It just doesn’t work, and where high drama should have us holding our breath, there is instead tittering amid a confusion of strobe lights. Without a fully embodied Mason, weak and despicable yet protecting his sister and upholding the law and opposing the magnetic Rochester, who would bigamously take his happiness, law be damned, we are not forced to face up to the moral conundrum Brontë poses.
These, obviously, are the criticisms from someone who has read the book too many times. The play as it exists here is a different animal — but the less familiar you are with the book, the more easily you will enjoy the play for its many merits.
Jane Eyre continues through Dec. 19. See our theatre calendar for details.