Charlotte Brontë’s masterwork Jane Eyre is something most of us read in grade school. We remember the gilded Victorian prose laid over absolute reams of paper. We remember, perhaps, vaguely liking parts of it—the curious figure flitting about Thornfield Hall, the fire, the mystique of the rolling moors—but having rather a difficult time with the pacing and the oppressive atmosphere. I may have to revisit the novel, though. Firstly, of course, I’m older. Secondly, I spent a delightful afternoon viewing the WordPlayers’ rendition of Paul Gordon’s and John Caird’s musical stage adaptation, playing this coming weekend at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville.
The cast gives life to the characters in such a way that I wish they had been there for me in high school Senior English. After leading last year’s Little Women to great effect, Casey Maxwell returns now to play the steadfast, stoic Brontë heroine with evocative depth. Coke Morgan’s Mr. Rochester is the perfect cynic, giving you just enough reason to dislike him even while drawing on your sympathies.
The cast is further committed to adding depth to the peripheral characters. I enjoyed the friendship between young Jane and the ever-buoyant Helen Burns, played by Eleni Johnson and Livi Fenech respectively (note: at some performances, Cheyenne Hewitt will play young Jane). I found myself wanting to know more of the story of Grace Poole, Rochester’s mysterious upstairs servant, played by the powerfully-voiced Tomi Robb. Sheryl Howard plays Mrs. Fairfax with rather breathtaking vocal alacrity, and Christina Ledbetter’s Blanche Ingram (Rochester’s haughty and narcissistic marriage prospect) is perfectly horrid, as only the best narcissists can be.
Lacking any lines except singing, laughter, and a guttural scream or two is the spectral stranger haunting the wings of the house and creeping about at night. For those who have not read Jane Eyre, I won’t spoil the surprise here, but the ghostly lurker is played by Nancy Duckles, who absolutely disappears behind the wordless role, leaving only the character itself in her place.
Most effective is the choreography. The ensemble, as often as not, seems to be a kind of living house. In Brontë’s novel, the feeling steals upon the reader that the walls are listening, and that they have heard much. Under director Leann Dickson, the chorus becomes an animate set of passageways and walls, hinting at what they have heard in often eerie tones. The musical is somewhat long, passing the two-hour mark, but the cast keeps the audience’s interest well. In recent years, the WordPlayers’ summer shows have leant into the American landscape, exploring Mark Twain’s stretch of the Mississippi with Big River and the rural Wisconsin wilderness with The Spitfire Grill. Here now is an adventure in the distant backcountries of England, full of attendant joys and sorrows and a windswept cast of characters.
Jane Eyre will run for four shows, beginning Friday, July 20, and going through Sunday, July 22. Tickets are available at the door and the WordPlayers website.