By Richard Ades
Don’t boys ever read Jane Eyre? Playwright Daniel Elihu Kramer seems to assume it appeals only to girls in his new stage adaptation, Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream.
Maybe, maybe not. I know I read it during the youthful years when I was addicted to the Victorian novels of Dickens and others.
But maybe Kramer is right that Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance means the most to girls. If his onstage “interviewer” (Jeff Horst) were to ask what the book meant to me, I’d have trouble coming up with answers as personal as those of the female “readers” who show up throughout the play.
You probably remember Kramer from his earlier literary adaptation, Pride & Prejudice, which Available Light premiered in 2010. In both works, Kramer periodically interrupts the British tale with digressions that are meant to increase our understanding and appreciation. With P&P, they were explanations of the period’s mores and mindsets; with Jane Eyre, they’re faux interviews with various girls and women who formed a special bond with the fictional Jane.
Personally, I like the new approach better. It seems less like a series of professorial asides, and it occasionally offers interesting insights, such as how girls react to the heroine’s self-described physical plainness. Even so, I feel about Kramer’s Jane Eyre much like I felt about his Pride & Prejudice: It’s most engrossing when he focuses on the original story. Director Acacia Leigh Duncan and her cast do an admirable job throughout, but it’s during the scenes from the book that the production really shines.
Well, maybe “shines” isn’t the best word, because the most memorable moments benefit from Carrie Cox’s dark and moody lighting. It combines with Brian Steinmetz’s roughhewn set and Jordan Fehr’s atmospheric sound design to create an aura of mystery and dread.
Robyn Rae Stype stars as Jane, an orphan who survives a deprived childhood and goes to work as a governess in a house run by the secretive Rochester (Horst). Stype makes an appealing heroine, but her performance is strangely opaque. It’s not a grave failing—we know what she’s thinking thanks to the presence of the narrator (the always good Michelle Gilfillan Schroeder)—but it would be nice if she occasionally allowed Jane’s thought processes to be more apparent.
In contrast, Horst is unfailingly expressive as Rochester, making him the kind of charismatic figure who could win the lonely Jane’s heart without really trying. Elena M. Perantoni is equally emotive as the warm-hearted Mrs. Fairfax and other female characters.
Michelle Whited’s costumes are simple but effective. Except for Schroeder’s outfit, which is modern and rather unflattering, they manage to suggest mid-19th century fashions while coming off as basically timeless.
Pride & Prejudice was a popular production that Available Light has brought back more than once. Kramer’s take on Jane Eyre deserves to enjoy just as much success, and maybe even a bit more.
Available Light Theatre will present Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream through June 8 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, plus 8 p.m. June 6. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance or “pay what you want” at the door. 614-558-7408 or avltheatre.com.