Behind a Mask

If the thought of adapting a novel for the stage seems as daunting to you as it does to me, then go slap Hardcover Theater's Steve Schroer on the back--because he did it! And he does it all the time. Great literature sparks pictures in his head, as it does for any book nerd. But he is able to accomplish the perplexing feat of both adapting texts and translating his visions for us. An early almost-pulp Louisa May Alcott book, Behind a Mask, centers on the smart, well-mannered Jean Muir (Leigha Horton), who's hired by the rich Coventry heirs to serve as governess to their teenaged sister. At first Muir seems genuinely nervous and forlorn, most certainly having had some tough luck with love. The governess--who with "the tastes of the gentry, the hunger of the poor" doesn't fit neatly within the household's castes--inspires our empathy, which is likely what Alcott intended, as she too worked as a governess before becoming a famous writer. But slowly, our fondness for Miss Muir erodes. Her downcast eyes rise to meet the men of the Coventry household, first the handsome young brothers, then the filthy-rich uncle. She charms them by batting eyelashes, feigning innocence, and implying to each that flames grip her heart. Helpless under her spell, they fall for her one by one while the audience, thanks to those handy soliloquies, sees her for the Victorian hussy she is. Horton expertly juggles the deference and cunning of her character. Miss Muir is ever duteous when addressing the Coventrys, but betrays her true character to the audience. She schemes openly, her nose high in the air, her eyes narrowed on target. Still, the manner of Horton's velvety white face appears gentle. Fully aware of her wrongdoings, even repentant at times, it could be that she merely seeks reprieve from her isolation. At once a wretched temptress and a broken orphan, she inspires conflicting sentiments. We agonize over her. Do we love or hate her? While I remain ambivalent about Muir, my ardor decidedly leapt for the Hardcover company, who ably distilled this tale into a parlor house thriller.

 
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