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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, January 26, 2001)



Lifeline Theatre is one of the premiere storytelling companies in the city. But audiences expecting a literal recounting of events from the swiftly turned pages of classic novels will have to re-direct their brains to a more abstract sphere. The Rogers Park troupe revels in transcending the concrete and dramatizing the story often hidden beneath the text.

Adapter Christina Calvit has released Charlotte Bronte's famed Gothic novel, "Jane Eyre," from its dusty melodramatic confines to show the title heroine's liberation from Victorian oppression. By judiciously trimming the tale of a plain governess beloved by a noble man in a house full of deadly secrets, Calvit creates a focused, full-bodied work with a contemporary resonance. Lifeline first produced "Jane Eyre" in 1991. This remount has undergone more creative adjustments enhanced by Dorothy Milne's grounded and streamlined direction.

We are introduced to Jane's past - as the unwanted ward of her self-interested Aunt Reed and her miserable years at an orphanage --via fragmented memories. These recollections manifest themselves in three pivotal people who have shaped her untrustworthy worldview: the cold-hearted Mr. Brocklehurst, master of the Lowood School; the sadistic Aunt Reed; and the innocent Helen, Jane's best friend who died from the unspeakable conditions at the Lowood School. These figures engulf Jane's subconscious mind.

In Milne's psychological staging, these characters hover over the action. At one point, Jane carries the imaginary Helen on her back as if mercilessly saddled with the Victorian burdens of guilt and propriety. The shadows of her past - played with terrifying constancy by Martin Halacy, Sandy Snyder Pietz and Tiffany Scott - are stationed behind the windows of Thornfield Hall. They are the specters of Jane's dismal fate.

Yet there are moments of sprightly humor and tender seduction. The complex relationship between Jane (played with a staid but fiery dignity by Jenifer Tyler Key) and the troubled Mr. Rochester (Peter Greenberg in a gruff yet heartbreaking performance) can easily be played with a lot of pained looks and sighs. Apart from the over-sentimental finale, the actors transform these familiar characters into real beings hemmed in by the ridiculous strictures of their times. A scene in which Rochester impersonates a fortune teller emits a giddy sweetness.

In Lifeline's "Jane Eyre," Rochesters's mad pyromaniac of a wife - locked in an upstairs chamber - is more than a dark secret. She stands for the injustices of a society crumbled by fear and superstition. Tyler Key's Jane opts for stalwartness over morosity as she tries to find her place in a world of madness and cruelty. Rather than brooding, Greenberg's Rochester struggles with a sad, reluctant kindness.

They are complemented by a committed cast in multiple roles, including Jann Iaco, Vance Smith, Kendra Thulin and Erika Winters. Through a variety of textures, designers Alan Donahue, Kevin Gawley, Kim Fencl Rak and Albert Carrasco lend an airiness to Thornfield Hall's heavy stones. Together, they all foster a gracious and gripping staging unfettered by Gothic gloom. •
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