The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Also see Susan's review of The Rainmaker
Built as it is around a self-dramatizing central character, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has an innate theatricality. Sarah Marshall lives up to the contradictions of the role, but the total production now at the Studio Theatre in Washington often comes across as more ponderous than incendiary.
Playwright Jay Presson Allen obviously has been fascinated by Muriel Spark’s novel for decades. The version of the play now at Studio is not the one Allen wrote that appeared on Broadway in 1968, nor is it an adaptation of her 1969 screenplay that won Maggie Smith an Academy Award. Studio is presenting the U.S. premiere of a fresh adaptation Allen originally wrote for the Royal National Theatre in London.
Director Joy Zinoman has an opportunity to paint on a broad canvas here, aided by Daniel Conway’s soaring two-level set. The cast of schoolgirls, teachers, and nuns seems to be in constant motion, what with the infusion of traditional and classical music and Scottish dance into the action.
Unlike the earlier stage and film versions, Allen here moves fluidly through time, replacing suspense (who is the mysterious nun whose memories form the body of the play? Is she the “Brodie girl” who betrayed her teacher?) with foreshadowing. The opening tableau, in fact, sets up the drama: a parody of the Last Supper, with nuns standing in for apostles and Brodie in the center as Jesus. The identity of the betrayer, thus, becomes clear to the audience in that first moment.
The setting is 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland. In a conservative girls’ school, Brodie is the one free-thinking teacher, determined to turn her favorite students into “the crème de la crème.” She immerses them in her value judgments on art (since she likes the works of Giotto better than those of Leonardo da Vinci, she decrees Giotto the better painter), romance, and politics.
The girls of the “Brodie set” are smart: bespectacled Sandy (Sarah Grace Wilson); dreamy, redheaded Jenny (Elizabeth Chomko); emotional Monica (Mary C. Davis); and stuttering, shy Mary Macgregor (Ellen Warner). The drama follows how Brodie tries to shape the girls’ individual lives, and what happens when they get old enough to start thinking for themselves. All of the actresses give effective performances, but the contrast is most striking between Wilson’s crisp intelligence and self-assurance and Chomko’s self-satisfied beauty.
Marshall has been doing deeply nuanced, involving work on Washington stages for years, often in roles that come across as reckless and manic. Brodie is actually something of a departure for her: the emotional fireworks are certainly present, but Marshall keeps the fires banked through much of the play, only allowing a few flares at climactic moments. She ably holds her own against Brodie’s two suitors, buttoned-up Gordon Lowther (Richard Stirling) and frustrated artist Teddy Lloyd (David Adkins).