Jane Eyre | Mustard Seed Theatre

janeeyre 75The actors set the mood from the beginning, when Jane enters, holding a candle and singing a lament about a “poor orphan child.”

 

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Imagination. Theater demands you collaborate with what is before you in your mind’s eye, and the extent to which you enjoy the exercise may be in the direct correlation with how much you like live shows. Movies and television have the capacity to be more overt in delivering entertainment, but plays need your participation to exist at all, just as reading does. One of the canonical novels of English Literature, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, provides the basis for Julie Beckman’s charming stage adaptation now playing at Mustard Seed Theatre. Beckman has written the script in “chamber” style, where lines from the book are directly quoted in the play. It takes a moment to mentally get in the rhythm, but once you do, it sounds natural despite its intrinsic artificiality.

Another unusual aspect of the production is identifying only two actors by name and role: Sarah Godefroid-Cannon as Jane and Shaun Sheley as Mr. (Edward) Rochester. The rest of the cast is credited as “ensemble,” and they are Gregory Cuellar, Katie Donnelly, Laura Ernst, Kathryn Hunter, Richard Lewis, Carmen Russell, Donna Weinsting, B. Weller, and Leslie Wobbe. If you know all of their work (which I do, except for Hunter who is a high school senior making her professional debut), it’s fun to see them display their versatility without specific credit. And there’s not a false note in the work except for one: the common problem of dialect. One of the cast members has a dialect coach credit, but as usual, some can do it and some can’t. Katie Donnelly is particularly good with an Irish brogue, which deserves mention.

Mostly, those who use less dialect are actually easier to understand (except for Donnelly, who is always clear) much of the time. When their backs are to us, enunciation isn’t perfect. But we get the gist, and now I’m going to stop complaining because I liked this show a lot. Brontë might have been looking at Godefroid-Cannon when she imagined Jane. Actually, the actress is considerably more attractive than plain Jane, but she transforms herself into the tiny 10-year-old who has no home and suffers under the guardianship of her late uncle’s wife until she is sent to Lowood, a substandard boarding school, where she spends the next eight years. She assumes an adult expression and pitches her voice lower, and emerges as a grown woman in a serious dress with no discernible makeup and a severe hairstyle. Only her blue cloak adds a hint of color and a shy smile points toward the woman Jane will eventually become as we follow her life’s journey.

The actors set the mood from the beginning, when Jane enters, holding a candle and singing a lament about a “poor orphan child,” accompanied by the others as they come in one by one. Music is almost another character in this play as flute music (by Laura Ernst and Carmen Russell and composed by Leona Ernst) doesn’t just set the mood, but creates sound effects that extend screams and aggravate nightmares, as well as enhance lighter moments. The set is expansive and elegant with clever touches, the smartest of which is Jane telling us to imagine what it really looks like. Dunsi Dai and Michael Sullivan’s collaboration in scenic and lighting design is effective, as always. JC Kracijek’s costumes are period perfect, and Kareem Deanes’ sound adds much to the mood, whether good things are happening or bad things are going bump in the night.

Unpleasant as it was, Jane wasn’t anxious to leave Lowood, where she taught for a couple of years after graduating. When she is forced to go, she advertises for a position and takes the only one she’s offered: a governess to a Mr. Rochester’s French ward, Adele. She and Mr. Rochester meet cute before she even arrives, as she walks along the road and his horse throws him, for which he blames her. She helps him get back on his mount and he warms up to her quickly, as do the kindly housekeeper and young Adele. All would be lovely, if it weren’t for some strange sounds from the attic and odd goings on in the wee small hours, such as a fire in Mr. Rochester’s bedroom, in which we see a ghostly figure with a candle set. Another spooky-looking spirit dressed as a bride is benign, though, and she helps Jane when needed and shows up for deaths and other momentous events.

Rochester becomes entangled in an “appropriate” engagement with a wealthy young woman, but he drops her like a hot rock when Jane declares her love for him. The two plan a wedding and are in the middle of their vows when…well, if you’ve read the book or seen any of the movies, you know what happens next, and if you don’t, then I’m not going to spoil any surprises. Godefroid-Cannon and Sheley have chemistry as a couple, but our Jane is no “little woman” in the traditional sense of her time. She has a lot of problems, goes away from what she wants, comes back, and triumphs in the end, which is exactly the way it should be. Artistic Director of the company Deanna Jent has directed another winner. | Andrea Braun

Jane Eyre runs through April 28, 2013, at Mustard Seed Theatre located on the Fontbonne University campus. For directions and other information, visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

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