Jane Eyre at The Rep

Theater can make you feel a lot of things, most of them wondrous. But on rare occasions, it can make me feel like a dummy.

And that’s what I felt like after seeing “Jane Eyre,” the final show of the season at The Rep, open Friday night.

The novel by Charlotte Bronte is regarded as one of the classics and is a popular assignment by English teachers in high school which is where I read it. It was scandalous when published in 1847 because it featured a character, Jane, who was nothing like the accepted version of a Victorian woman.

The novel was adapted almost 20 years ago by Polly Teale, and it’s that version The Rep is staging under the direction of KJ Sanchez.

In preparation for the production, the theater company has provided all kinds of supporting information about the novel, about Bronte, about Jane, about the other characters in the book and about the time period of the novel.

That is where my problem arose with this production. It’s almost as if the artistic team learned and knew too much about this story and forgot that, for most of us, this should be a slightly over two-hour journey told with clarity and thought.

It’s obvious a lot of thought went into this production, but the clarity part seemed to be missing, almost on purpose.

When the play opens, there are two women – one tightly wound and the other full of passionate rebellion – and they seem to be two sides of the same coin. They move in synchronized steps, they say their lines at the same time and with the same inflections, and they share secrets as only two women can do.

One of these women, we soon learn, is Jane Eyre, the homely orphan who has lived a life of abuse and poverty. The other woman spends her time on a second level in a red room, obviously mad, but we have no idea who she is or why she is there.

If you have read the book recently, seen one of the movie adaptations or read some of the pre-show information, you might know that the she is the lunatic wife of Edward Rochester. I hope I’m forgiven, but I had forgotten many of the details of the book.

This becomes important because Jane becomes governess to Rochester’s ward and both she and Rochester fall, ever so slowly, in love with each other. It’s not until the wedding day that it’s revealed that the woman in the red room is Rochester’s first, and present, wife.

Needless to say that revelation throws a serious wrinkle into this love affair between the landed hero and his downtrodden mistress. And, like in all good romance novels, Jane runs away from the love of her life, fearful of what may lay in store, but steadfast in her determination to live life her way.

One of the issues here is that there seems to be a lot of preaching going on, reminding the audience how this story, written a century and a half ago, is still relevant today, especially telling about the status of women.

Somewhere along the way, it seems as if they all forgot that what we are looking for when we go to the theater is a hell of a story well told.

“Jane Eyre” is, above all else, a love story about a rich man and a poor girl. Think “Cinderella” or “Sound of Music” or “South Pacific.” This adaptation takes a long time to get to the love part of the story.

Some of the choices don’t really seem to be of much service to the story either. The set design is cold and brittle, offering not a single glimpse of the opulence of Victorian England. There are gimmicks, like having actors portray horses pulling a carriage or pet puppies. They are distracting to say the least.

It’s almost as if this production is too precious, to cute for its own good. It’s like the story can’t find it’s way out from under the weight of all this production.

There are going to be people who are much smarter than me who understand all the nuances of this novel and this adaptation. They are going to use their vast knowledge of the book to find things in the play that I missed.

But I will say it again: At some point, people who produce plays need to grasp hold of the fact that most of the people in the audience don’t know nearly as much as you do. Tell them the story, thank them for coming and send them home.

And don’t make them feel like a dummy.

“Jane Eyre” runs through May 21 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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