Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Complicated Production of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

Also see Richard's reviews of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Lola Montez and Trying

Whitney Bashor, Edmond Genest and Clifton Guterman
The big question must be "who's afraid of Virginia Woolf," and apparently director Les Waters and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre are not. The company is presenting the world premiere of Adele Edling Shank's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse at their Roda Theatre through March 25th. The complexity of the Woolf's writing has become almost completely unapproachable. Walters attempts to create this two-and-a-half hour production with a lot of bells and whistles. There is a large screen as a backdrop that projects changes of season, hands preparing an elaborate dinner, and even angry waves lashing against a shore. He has speakers throughout the house for sound effects when planes are going overhead during the "Change of Time" scenes in the second act. The director has brought in a live string quartet playing Paul Dresher's dramatic music which is atonal. The last scene is a mini-chamber-opera, also composed by Mr. Dresher.

I have always contended that it is almost impossible to bring Ms. Woolf's 1927 landmark novel successfully to the stage. It is complex and written from multiple perspectives, shifting between times and characters. There is a certain poetic viewpoint rather than a narrative suggestion of a family life. There is a little story that was very popular years ago in England about critic Kenneth Tynan who had a friend who knew nothing about the Chekhov play they were seeing. Tynan asked his friend what he thought of the play, and the friend replied, "Rather boring, I thought, nothing happens." Tynan responded, "Nothing except the end of an age and the birth of the next one." That's what To the Lighthouse is about.

The BBC attempted a television play in 1983 with a great cast, including Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Ramsay and Michael Gough as Mr. Ramsay. Kenneth Branagh played Charles Tansley. PBS put in on their "Great Performances" version in 1984. On the whole the critics called it slow and boring but tolerable.

Les Waters' and Adele Edling Shank's adaptation is faithful to the Virginia Woolf novel. The prominent, grumpy metaphysical philosopher Mr. Ramsay (Edmond Genest) and his large family, the spinster Aunt Lily (Rebecca Watson), an old friend William Bankes (Jarion Monroe) and a student, Charles Tansley (David Mendelsohn), spend a summer in an isolated house on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. The stern Mr. Ramsay reprimands everybody, while Mrs. Ramsay (Monique Fowler) is the key player in keeping the family together. Aunt Lily, who wants to remain a spinster, paints while the family talks about sailing to the lighthouse, but the trip is always postponed. It takes ten years for Mr. Ramsay and two of his grown children, James (Clifton Guterman) and Cam (Whitney Bashor), to row to the lighthouse.

To the Lighthouse's opening scene is a very long series of heavy dialogue intermingled with characters' inner thoughts during an ordinary summer day. Nothing much happens and to make matters worse, at the opening performance the sound system in the very large theatre was not working properly. As a result, patrons on the upper tiers had a difficult time hearing the flowery dialogue of Ms. Woolf. (I learned later that there had only been four previews before the opening and there had been sound problems. Hopefully, the sound man has now gotten the sound working for the long, laborious first scene.)

Next is the elaborate dinner scene of the family and friends. Before the characters sit down at the long, beautiful table which reminds me of the wonderful table in A Little Night Music, there is projected on the large screen hands cutting vegetables and preparing the complex meal. All actors enter and the screen behind them projects burning candles. The action now starts to solidify with the guests chit-chatting idle conversations with an overhead light starting to focus on one member who speaks his innermost thoughts to the audience while the other characters just pantomime their speech. This scene is well done with the sound perfect. David Mendelsohn is excellent as a socially inept guest lower down the social scale who is very paranoid about being at the table. As he says to the audience, there is nothing but talk, talk, talk at the table. The first act ends as the guests leave the table.

To the Lighthouse's second act opens with the touching scene of Mrs. Ramsay talking to her two youngest children, James (Gabriel Stephens-Siegler) and Cam (Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum), about not going to the lighthouse across the bay. There is a tender little tête-à-tête with almost no speech between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay that is delightfully romantic.

Virginia Woolf uses 18 pages of her novel under "Time Passes" and here it is done via multi-media with Jedediah Ike's powerful video projections on the scrims, screens and shiny mirrored sheets of Annie Smart's set. Just to the left of the set, the live string quartet plays Paul Dresher's striking score. The projections show ten years in passing, including change of seasons, the sounds of "airoplanes" (as they were called in England during the first World War) overhead with a projection of the English countryside suggesting World War I in that lonely part of England. This is an extremely long sequence with some panto from the characters walking about the stage to denote their growing old.

The final sequence takes place ten years later when Mr. Ramsay, who is now a widower, finally decides to take James and Cam to the lighthouse. However, there is still old stubborn Lily still painting on the lawn (I hope it is not the same painting) and she still refuses to go to the lighthouse. Once Mr. Ramsay and the two children are in the boat, the young folks break into a mini-opera with Dresher's intense melodies sounding like a Marc Blitzstein opera.

Les Waters, Adele Edling Shank and Paul Dresher have made a grand attempt to present the difficult novel onstage. Unfortunately, on the whole, it is impossible to create collective nuances in a dramatic form. The look of the production is superb and it dominates over the acting.

All of the actors are admirable. Monique Fowler (Pride and Prejudice and The Rivals at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey plus the Broadway production of You Can't Take It With You) is excellent as Mrs. Ramsay, who takes pride in making memorable experiences for the family. Edmond Genest (New York's A Few Good Men, Dirty Linen, Pantomime, The Elephant Man) has a striking voice as the important philosopher Mr. Ramsay. He gives a poignant performance as the eccentric husband.

David Mendelsohn (Enrico IV and Misanthrope at A.C.T, Emma at the Aurora) gives a fine performance as the deep, insecure Charles Tansley. Jarion Monroe (Mother Courage, Old Wicked Songs) gives an engaging performance as the man of the world, William Bankes. Rebecca Watson (New York's By Jeeves) is appealing as the spinster Lily Briscoe.

Clifton Guterman (Smike in Cal Shakes production of Nicholas Nickleby and Finn In the Underworld at Berkeley Rep) as James has a crowd-pleasing voice in the mini-opera scene. Whitney Bashor (New York credits Bus to Buenos Aires, White Noise) as Cam has a pleasing voice in the out of the ordinary arias in the last scene.

Lauren Grace and Noah James Butler give good performances as Minta Doyle and Paul Rayley. The two children, Gabriel Stephens-Siegler (alternating with Jack Indiana) and Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum (alternation with Amara Radetsky), are efficient as the children.

Jedediah Ike's video projections are overpowering and sometimes distract from the performances of the actors. Darron L. West's sound design finally comes together in the second scene, and his effective sound effects of planes flying overhead and the crashing of waves is outstanding. Matt Frey's lighting is ,superb with the titular lighthouse periodically flashing past the minimal set of scrims, screens and shiny mirror sheets of Annie Smart's set.

To the Lighthouse plays through March 25th at the Roda Playhouse, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-647-2949 or visit The next production will be a play with original songs by Tanya Barfield and directed Delroy Lindo opening April 6th and running through May 20th.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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