The Awakening | The Wife’s Role

play awakening_75With her hair up and dressed in Teresa Doggett’s beautiful costumes, she embodies a woman who is in her time but not of it.

 

 

 play awakening_500

Photos by John Lamb

 

Henry I. Schvey took on quite a challenge when he chose to adapt Kate Chopin’s seminal 19th century American novel The Awakening. Now mounted by St. Louis Actors’ Studio in association with the Missouri History Museum where it is playing, the story concerns the interior life of Edna Pontellier (Emily Baker) as she “awakens” to life and what she is missing by conforming to Victorian conventions of marriage and motherhood. What a narrator can tell us in a book must be transmitted via actions on stage, thus some of the incidents that comprise the narrative may be somewhat confusing and/or unmotivated, but overall, Schvey conveys the arc of Edna’s story and a reasonable sense of what compels her to action in the dramatic form.

Directed by Milton Zoth (assisted by Nathan Bush, who presumably took over when Zoth had to miss the last week of rehearsals due to another commitment), the production itself succeeds on some levels, but it is not without flaws. The best choice anyone made for The Awakening is the actor who embodies Edna, Emily Baker. With her hair up and dressed in Teresa Doggett’s beautiful costumes, she embodies a woman who is in her time but not of it. When we meet her, she seems to be a contented wife to Leonce (Terry Meddows) and mother to Etienne and Raoul, her four- and five-year-old sons. She has a good friend in Adele Ratignolle (Maggie Murphy), a conventional wife and perpetually pregnant mother, and they have fun flirting with young Robert Lebrun (Antonio Rodriguez), son of their landlady, for they are spending the summer on Grand Isle outside New Orleans where they make their upper-class homes.

When we meet Edna, she and Robert are returning from the beach; he has been trying to teach her to swim but she won’t get in the water. They bump into Leonce, who notices how sunburned Edna is, chides her for it, returns her wedding ring (which she had asked him to hold), and then is off to a pool hall. We also get our first hint of where this marriage is headed, not just because Edna’s husband deserts her for the evening, as he often does, but that Leonce also can’t get her ring back on her finger, noticing that it is now too “tight.” In fact, her ring functions as a kind of handcuff, binding her to something she is already beginning to realize she no longer wants. Edna married Leonce for practical reasons, not love, and also to annoy her distant Kentucky Presbyterian father, who takes a dim view of his daughter choosing a New Orleans Catholic, however wealthy, as a husband.

Adele lets Robert know privately that perhaps he should back off his habitual flirting with Edna because “she is not like us. Not Creole.” Adele worries that her friend might be taking his blandishments seriously because Edna doesn’t understand the code of the people among whom she now lives: What one says and how they behave have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Adele and Robert had been devoted to each other in the past, but in Adele’s real life, she is a proper wife and mother who adores her family and embodies the Victorian feminine ideal, the “angel of the house.” As it happens, she’s right. Edna does fall in love (or at least in lust, but she calls it “love”) with Robert, and in time, he returns her feelings. Uh oh.

One evening, the entertainment at the main house on Grand Isle is one Mademoiselle Reisz (Christie Mitchell), an accomplished pianist, who has devoted her life to her passion for music. Edna is greatly moved by the performance, almost transformed, as we can see in Baker’s rapturous expression. The two women who are so opposite in life become close when everyone moves back to the city, as the Bohemian Mademoiselle encourages Edna in her desire to try to become an artist. Mlle. Reisz also receives letters from Robert Lebrun, which she shares with the eager Edna, and she does not discourage their relationship.

The younger woman begins to spend more time on her drawings and watercolors while her husband takes off on an extended business trip to New York City. But before he goes, Leonce visits Dr. Mandelet (Michael Monsey), the family physician, to talk about Edna’s strange behavior. She has taken to leaving the house on Tuesday afternoons, visiting day, which causes quite a scene at the dinner table when Leonce learns about it. He lectures her about the need for her to play her part if they hope to rise in society; what he doesn’t realize is that she does not share that hope. The doctor dismisses his concern, chalking it all up to whims that will pass. It seems no man but Robert (who is much younger than the others) has ever taken Edna seriously.

Edna’s children go to their grandmother Pontellier for the summer, leaving Edna completely on her own with the exception of her servant Athenee (Molly Ross Fontana), and of course, she doesn’t really count (another convention of the time). Edna begins gambling on horses, socializing with a small circle that includes Madame Reisz and a local roué called Alcee Arobin, spending time on her art, and generally casting off the ties that have bound her so tightly. Adele is shocked, especially at what she sees as Edna’s lack of care and concern for her children. Still, she asks her old friend to attend her next childbirth, which Edna does, and that is the final nail in the coffin of Edna’s old life.

In addition to Baker, Meddows and Rodriguez are excellent in their roles as clueless husband and unwitting and unwilling lover. Murphy nails Adele’s foolish devotion and carefree enthusiasm. The rest of the actors seem stagey and, in a couple of cases, amateurish. Their artificiality and line flubs aren’t doing justice to difficult material. I’m also not sure that some of the transitions from scene to scene work; this would be the fault of the script, although Michael B. Perkins’ projections on two large screens at either side of the stage greatly help give us a sense of place, whether it’s by the sea, on the island veranda, back in the New Orleans house, or on its streets. I may be a poor judge of how the transitions work, however, since I am familiar with the novel.

The scenery is a simple table and a few chairs that hang at crazy angles on a pole upstage center, which may represent Edna’s state of mind. The chairs are removed, relocated, and replaced as needed. This arrangement and the especially lovely lighting design are by Patrick Huber. Robin Weatherall bathes the auditorium in classical music for both mood and to represent Mlle. Reisz’s passion for playing piano, especially Chopin, which this production does not accommodate by using a live instrument.

Kate Chopin lived at least part of her novel, which was considered so shocking and controversial that it was possibly banned in her hometown of St. Louis (that has not been historically verified, but it was taken off the shelves in Evanston, Illinois), as well as other places. Critics and fellow writers alike called Edna’s story sordid and morbid. Chopin was disappointed and never wrote another novel, though her short stories enjoyed popularity in her lifetime. She, too, was a transplant to New Orleans, married to a French Creole who had several children during a short time and was perhaps also forced to live a life not of her choosing. Her husband died, however, allowing her to return to St. Louis and focus on her work. She was embraced by scholars in the late 1960s and has since been regarded as a seminal feminist novelist, with The Awakening receiving much scholarly attention. Schvey has done mostly right by it, but in the end, it might be better to just read the book if you haven’t. If you have, then you might want to check out this production. | Andrea Braun

 

The Awakening runs through March 23, 2014 in the theater on the lower level of the Missouri History Museum. You may visit www.stlas.org for information.

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