at the Guthrie Theater
through November 10
Charlotte Brontë's heroine earns a doctorate from the school of hard knocks by the time she reaches young adulthood. Orphaned, she learns grim lessons about family, religion, and the social order of her time: namely, that they're all firmly aligned against her. So when she takes a gig as a governess at a Gothic manor, then learns her boss is a Byronic hunk, she's well on her way to embarking on one of the most conflicted and complicated romances in literary history.
If only Alan Stanford's adaptation, as well as this production directed by John Miller-Stephany, came close to measuring up to its source. Granted, the heart of the story is the love between Jane (Stacia Rice) and Rochester (Sean Haberle), and here it is the best part of the play. Unfortunately, it only occurs after a long stretch of unfocused and diluted action at Jane's horrible aunt's home and the institution to which the young girl is subsequently banished.
The audience is rewarded for its endurance with Haberle's entrance. His Rochester is suitably gruff and wry, an imperiously moody bastard whose air of brainy disillusion finds its foil in the plainspoken, hardened, no-bullshit Jane. Haberle and Rice match wits with dexterity, their characters alternately fascinated and amused by one another. In a telling moment, Rochester imploringly barks, "Speak!" at Jane. Rice flinches slightly, and their relationship is exposed: He is hopelessly smitten with her, and she is (for the moment) incontrovertibly subordinate to him.
Things change, of course, and Rochester's marriage proposal leads to the discovery of a major skeleton in his closet (almost literally). Jane, bound by her sense of propriety and self-defined morality, duly hits the road, and the action follows suit by going south. Jane is taken in by blowhard clergyman St. John Rivers (Peter Christian Hansen) and his two tittering sisters, and our emotional involvement quickly becomes more labor than pleasure.
It scarcely helps that the weight of the action is often drained by lunges toward easy laughs (Jane's denunciation to Rochester of her hypocritical former schoolmaster comes across as petulant and prim, rather than a character-defining assertion; later, the Rivers sisters ooh and aah in unison over Jane with annoying staginess). Worse still, the decision to play undistinguished and sentimental string passages behind certain stretches of dialogue comes across as needlessly manipulative.
To be sure, no one is helped much by Stanford's leaden adaptation, which tramples through Brontë's major plot points with elephantine elegance. By the end, Rice and Haberle manage to raise a poignant spark from Rochester and Jane's reunion. But by then too much tedium has passed, too many surfaces have been skimmed, and all that's left is a sense of disappointment and unfulfilled promise.