Savage Umbrella's 'The Awakening' revisits sexism in the Victorian era

Dan Norman

Dan Norman

Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening is a feminist classic about a woman who becomes painfully aware of just how impossible it is for those of her gender to live and love freely.

The Southern Theater

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Savage Umbrella adapted the novel into an enthralling 2010 play, with both script and direction by Laura Leffler-McCabe. The company is now re-staging its Awakening at the Southern in a production that retains many of the original show’s strengths and adds a new dimension of physical theater.

Emily Dussault, who played a minor character in the 2010 production, now has the leading role of Edna Pontellier, a Louisiana woman whose husband (Seth K. Hale) focuses his attention on a prospering business career. That leaves Edna with plenty of space and time to dally with the gregarious Robert (Nick Wolf), a friend who loves her but resists the opportunity to embark on a dead-end affair. Another admirer, Alcee (Mike Swan), doesn’t have such scruples.

Leffler-McCabe’s great achievement is to keep this drama from going over the top: Instead of flashy confrontations and contrived crises, she shows us that these characters’ privilege (or lack thereof) is more salient than their morality. It’s an unflinching look that avoids demonizing these characters — all have cards to play, but the deck is stacked. Edna’s confidante Mademoiselle Reisz (Alexis Clarksean) is unambiguously portrayed as gay, adding a dimension of intersectionality that was much more oblique in the novel.

Dussault, a busy and consistently impressive actor, has never been better than she is here, sweeping us along on her character’s tragic journey of self-realization even as she maintains the dignified poise that’s so crucial to establishing Edna as a woman her peers can’t help but admire. Her suitors, as played by Wolf and Swan, make for a kind of Luke-and-Han duo: one big-hearted and a little dopey, the other self-absorbed but undeniably sexy. (It’s all about those fin de siècle sideburns.)

As previously, Candace Emberley’s original music (performed live by an instrumental trio, with interstitial singing by the cast) anchors a sumptuous production design that envelops the audience in the play’s intoxicating Southern setting. The set is much more minimal this time around, with actors using their bodies to suggest the literal and metaphorical waters in which these characters swim.

While this Awakening doesn’t quite have the punch of the previous production (losing, rather than gaining, momentum through the second act), it’s a compelling re-imagining of an outstanding play. As you walk out of this subtle and powerful show, it’s painful to realize that when it comes to blatant displays of sexism, our current president is even less restrained than the cad in a Victorian melodrama.

The Awakening
Southern Theater
1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-326-1811; through March 18