Laughter from the Third Floor

There is an inherent challenge in adapting novels to the stage. The novel, particularly when it is published serially or in volumes, is constructed in such a way as to be enjoyed over an extended period of time. An evening at the theater is just that—an evening. N.G. McClernan had a difficult task before her in turning Jane Eyre from a 400 page Victorian novel into a two hour play. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre tells the story of an orphan girl who is sent by her nasty aunt to a horrid school in order to train to be a governess. Jane survives and thrives, eventually taking a position at Thornfield Hall, home of Edward Rochester, his ward Adele, and the mysterious woman locked away on the third floor, who Jane hears laughing from the moment she arrives at the Hall. Ignoring the fact that they are from separate classes, Jane and Edward soon fall in love and decide to marry. On the day of their wedding, important, yet unfortunate information is revealed to Jane that causes her to run away from Edward.

There is a lot that occurs in the story of Jane Eyre and the play struggles to convey the novel's depth and breadth. Watching the play jump from place to place and from past to present makes one wonder if the neoclassicists were somehow right to enforce the unities of time and place so strictly. Several scenes are flashbacks, which are initially confusing, due to actor doubling and the fact that not much is done to suggest that we are leaving the present world of the play and traveling back to Jane's past. Something seems to be missing as the play progresses; there are gaps in the story that are meagerly filled in by exposition, often a monologue that begins with Jane writing in her diary.

The performances of the actors are occasionally stellar. Alice Connorton brings the necessary sternness of demeanor to her role as Alice Fairfax and is downright scary in her role as Aunt Reed. Mary Murphy purses her lips and holds tension in her arms and shoulders, suggesting that her Jane Eyre is both plain and proper. Her enunciation is good, and is believably what a Regency-era governess should sound like. Greg Oliver Bodine falters a bit initially by seeming to inject a bit of postmodern insincerity and sarcasm into his early flirtations with Jane. Bodine strengthens in the end, when his character has lost everything and is in the depths of despair.

Jane Eyre questions the role of women in society. Jane refuses to be a kept woman, and does not return to Rochester until she has secured financial independence. The woman in the attic, named Antoinette in the stage version, represents the domination of men in the nineteenth century. Is she really insane or is her insanity a result of being used as a pawn and her resulting loveless marriage? The production does not portray Antoinette sympathetically. She draws blood after biting her brother's neck, sets fire to Rochester's bed curtains, and tears Jane's wedding veil. The portrayal of Antoinette, a character who should be pitied, seems at odds with the portrayal of Jane, another strong woman, who has been allowed her independence, and therefore will avoid the fate of Antoinette.

It is best for fans of Bronte's novel to stick to the book, as even the best of actors cannot replace the beauty that is to be found in there. McClernan makes a valiant effort in transplanting the sprawling work to the confines of the stage, but in the end, as our high school teachers always said, it's best just to read the book.

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