But in this excellent (nearly non-musical) staging of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel, a daybreak of common sense bursts through the dark several times a day, thanks to playwright Julie Beckman. It's all very beautifully handled, and the stark power of reason is crucially important in a 19th century filled with cruel judgments, and enough gloom and doom to fill at least two of Charles Dickens' novels.
Thank goodness for actress Sarah Godefroid-Cannon, as Jane. She somehow manages to be both reasoning and sunny, in spite of the many developments that darken her way. She and director Deanna Jent take the Romantic formula and together work it into something fresh and appealing.
And there wouldn't be much of a romance without that great 19th-century figure Edward Rochester, the lion of Jane's life (the handsome and stylish Shaun Sheley). I guess you could say that Jane's a kind of medium-hardboiled detective in this mysterious story, gradually unearthing the past in Rochester's lifeand that he's somehow the man-in-trouble that she's bound to rescue. If you'll be patient for a moment, I might even be able to persuade you that Raymond Chandler was just ripping off Charlotte Bronte the whole time ... and that the surprise twist in the entire genre of detective fiction itself is that Chandler was really just 'Bronte for boys,' when all is said and done. (This also helps to explain all the persistent bits of bookish narrative that cling to Jane's cloak, like a Humphrey Bogart voice-over.)
Seeing this all through the lens of the hardboiled idiom (think of Chandler's The Big Sleep, for example) helps a lot with this play: Bronte's English smoke and fog are chemically no different from L.A. smog; and Bronte's minor characters scheme and plot and deny the reality of their own twisted situations, till the sheer force of Jane's reason works out the awful, complicated truth (though I don't think she ever gets to slap anyone in the process, I'm sorry to say). But the analogy breaks down in the final scenes because, in Jane Eyre, the ending actually makes sensewhich is a lot more than you can say for The Big Sleep.
And Ms. Godefroid-Cannon is a lot more than just a diminutive Philip Marlowe. Being a fine actress, she's able to run off a few yards of truly gut-wrenching anguish whenever things go south with Rochester, or (long before that) when the awful family that's tasked with raising her sends her to an unhealthy boarding school instead.
Donna Weinsting is ghastly (and by 'ghastly,' I mean wonderful) as Mrs. Reed, and Gregory Cuellar is great whether he's sticking his tongue out at Jane for three hours (as young Master Reed), or as a strict schoolmarm, or a carefree, dancing dandy, later on. It's still hard-boiled, all right, but with a nice dash of carnival sideshow thrown in for color.
Mr. Sheley, as the homme fatale, is entirely brooding and seductive, with just the barest touch of Alan Rickman in his nuanced tonea complete transformation from his role last year in Talley's Folly (also directed by Ms. Jent) but just as winning, in his own unexpected way. And two local favorites, Richard Lewis and B. Weller, add style and horror and even a kind of endearing humiliation, when Mr. Weller's rector awkwardly proposes to Jane (casting-off male suitors in this play is not much different than in hardboiled fiction, where all kinds of women throw themselves at the hero).
Katie Donnelly is unnerving as the mysterious arsonist, whose candle and smoke give a literal noir look to Jane and Rochester's first bedroom liaison. Elsewhere, super-intelligent Laura Ernst is viciously spoilt and subtly calculating as Blanche Ingram, the would-be lady of Thornfield. And I'm pretty sure there's a derringer stashed away up there, in that feathered 1840's headdress of hers, just in case.
You will notice some changes from the famous 1943 Orson Welles version, of courseAdele, the adorable moppet (nicely done here by Kathryn Hunter), is barely on stage at all; and that awful boy who stuck his tongue out at Jane never comes back as an even more awful wastrel in a pub, years later.
But there's a fantastic nightmare scene on stage, where Jane is plagued by all her doubts at once. And, in this live re-telling, her eventual triumphs over the strangling limitations of her time and gender and station are even more rewarding when the lights come down at last.
Through April 28, 2013, at the black-box theater at the south end of Fontbonne University. Enter off Big Bend Blvd., just south of Wydown Blvd. in Clayton, MO. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.
Designers and Crew
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association