For 170 years, Charlotte Bronte’s innovative and enduring romantic novel Jane Eyre has continued to engage and provoke readers. It’s a daring tale about a heroine who falls in love with a man who holds the most torturous of secrets and the decisions she makes along the way to find her ultimate and true love.
University Players selected the story for its opening show of the new 2017-18 season, giving a rather unambiguous and almost dark beginning to what looks to be a rather colourful season. Using a creatively designed set with several transparent areas to serve for bedrooms, lounges, entryways and an upper attic, the play is told primarily through mime, using no distinct props except for wooden boxes to sit on.
The story is told from the beginning of the book and portrays the young Jane as timid and breakable young girl clinging to her inner self for strength. Surprisingly, much of the religious tones of the book were scaled down to a couple scenes of prayer and the occasional reference to God. Bronte gave Jane more religious tones than this version allowed and much of the anti-Christian critiques that the original book had obtained through the years were clearly not present in this version.
The story tells the tale of Jane, orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead and subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school. She emerges from the school steady in spirit and integrity when she takes up the post of governess at Thornfield. There she falls in love with Mr. Rochester and discovers the unforgiveable impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman’s passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.
Lauren Fields was cast perfectly as Jane and Cole Reid was a textbook Mr. Rochester. Fields captured the inner turmoil Jane felt throughout the story and gave the character a charm and sensibility that dives deep into the original book for inspiration. When she finally recesses to marry Mr. Rochester, Fields tucks Jane’s excitement in her sleeve and proceeds to her wedding with only an inner excitement, as it was in the original. Fields became the unconfident Jane as if she herself was harnessing those exhausting feelings. By the climax of the play, Fields gave Jane everything she had – a character so full of emotion and turmoil that each step of the way was as if pages of the book were being torn away one at a time.
As Rochester, Reid had a certain debonair and charm that we’d expect from a mid-19th century gentleman of wealth. As we later learned, much of that appeal was almost an overprotection of his dastardly secret. Still loveable, even when we uncover the lies, Reid held Rochester together until his decrepit last scenes. In a slight edit to the book, the play doesn’t continue beyond Jane’s reunion with Rochester, which would have given Reid more time to recover.
The rest of the cast held multiple roles, but shined above at certain points. Jacob Free was a bit funny as Rochester’s horse, but really shone as Richard Mason and as hard as portraying an inner self could be, Alicia Plummer gave Jane’s inner self plenty of character, but things got confusing when she switched back and forth between Bertha and the inner Jane.
Taylor Brimmer who also had multiple parts, rocked the role of Bessie, Xanath Fuentes was extraordinary as Abigail with one of the best giggles I’ve ever heard, Eva Flores was judicious as Mrs. Reed and Averey Meloche was the shows outstanding character actor, giving the clergyman and Mr. Brockelhurst distinct old-world allure and divergent voices. He also gave the unglamorous role of Rochester’s dog more bang for the buck than most of the audience expected. He pranced the stage on all fours and short of licking the cast, was surprisingly a great pooch.
The biggest star of the show was costume designer Agatha Knelsen, who captured the 19th century gothic look with an intuitive approach and great attention to detail.
Jane Eyre is ultimately romantic to the core and we must admire her desire for the unconditional passion and love that resides deep in her heart.
University Players’ Jane Eyre continues next weekend with evening shows Wednesday – Saturday (Sept. 27-30) and Matinees on Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1). Tickets are available at University Players.