When Charlotte Bronte's novel was first published in 1847, it was received as a bildungsroman, the German term for a novel that concentrates on the experiences that lead to someone's maturity. However, in Mergatroyd Productions' rendition of Jane Eyre, there is very little inclusion of Jane's childhood. The play opens near the end of the novel, and then unfolds as a retracing of some of the past. From the top, the technical difficulties commence with light and sound cues that fall off target. We meet Edward Rochester (Greg Oliver Bodine), a well to do bachelor calling out the name “Jane!” without receiving a response. From there, her life is portrayed as a series of becks that she almost always responds to. But the key word is almost.
Plain Jane (Mary Murphy) is first seen as she arrives to take the role of the governess to Adele, Rochester's young ward. Her simple dress betrays her humble beginnings while the flashbacks into her past reveal the horrific overtones. This staging doesn't delve into her once happier childhood, but we do learn that she was once bludgeoned with religion with the presence of domineering Reverend Brocklehurst (Bruce Barton) and despised by Aunt Reed (Alice Connorton), the woman who adopted her after her parents died. Jane survives all of this to become an opinionated, learned, and ethical young woman that won't kowtow any further than her job requires. And it's a good thing too, because her suffering and the building of her character doesn't end in childhood. She'll need a healthy portion of character to handle everything involved with caring for Mr. Rochester. Her admirable qualities make her remarkable to him. And through intellectual exchanges, they discover that they are a good match despite their different stations in life. Unfortunately, it takes just as long to become invested in the performance as it does for Jane and Rochester to establish a connection.
The production doesn't become lively until it reaches the one hour mark. The first 60 minutes creeps by with laying the groundwork for the show, but it does so unimpressively. It must be noted that the blandness of Victorian life must have shaped some of McClernan's direction, but that blandness doesn't translate well on stage. There doesn't seem to be any momentum, and at times, the interest in precision lapses. For example, Mary Murphy winds her long hair in a bun to represent the age, but she also has bangs, something that would have been unheard of in the 19th century. Her bun also unravels to distraction, with many large hairpins sticking out of the mass. Here, Jane is not only poor, she's unkempt. Costumes by Vivianne Galloway are mismatched, where some actors wear period shoes while others don't. Also, the dresses appear to be from different eras. There is, however, a scarlet, empire dress worn by Blanche (Annalisa Loeffler) that is striking.
In general, the acting hits on all cylinders. The 23 characters from the novel are reduced to 16, with four actors taking on various, memorable roles. Bruce Barton, resembling Kelsey Grammar in appearance, recycles his bombastic speaking voice for all the roles, but still manages to entertain. Alice Connorton and Annalisa Loeffler are both chameleons, deserving mention for their versatility. Unlike the novel, the production spends a great deal of time on Jane's experience with St. John Rivers, her cousin and potential mate. As Rivers, Nat Cassidy is much harsher and religious law-abiding that his character is in the novel, but it also helps us to understand why Jane runs back to Rochester. She not only still loves Rochester, but committing to Rivers is clearly a fate that she doesn't want for herself. The audience doesn't want that for her either. As Jane, Murphy is appropriately meek and blunt at the right times. Although her interactions with Bodine can't be wholly described as fiery, when they do get comfortable with each other and their declarations of love, they do come alive together. Bodine, sometimes rigid and humorless for Rochester's restraints, is debonair when he needs to be.
Jane Eyre is an ambitious effort to stage a highly respected, 400 page novel. The fact that they were able to encapsulate the gist of the novel in a two-hour presentation is a feat unto itself. However, some of the technical elements need to be smoother, and some of the staging choices need to be revisited before it can be called a success. And while it does shine in some parts, it won't be winning any new fans of Victorian fiction with the dry and tiresome beginning. Still, there are explorations of views on important themes such as social class, gender relations, morality and religion that are still pertinent today. While you may not be able to identify with corsets and Victorian restraint, the themes discussed in the novel and in this production should be familiar to you as components of the upcoming presidential election.