Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” once again leaps from the page to the stage, namely Hartford Stage, where a new adaptation of “Jane Eyre” runs through March 14. The production bows reverently to Brontë’s eponymous hero and to the novelist herself with a smolderingly intense performance by the cast.
Adapted and directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, this “Jane Eyre” isn’t concerned with blazing a fresh trail in storytelling. Rather, Williamson expresses her devotion to Brontë’s written words in letting them speak for themselves. Williamson and her design team serve Brontë splendidly while staying out of her way.
Published in 1847, “Jane Eyre” was a rarity with its first-person narrative from a woman’s perspective, as Jane recounts her tumultuous life including life in an orphanage, the death of young sibling sisters and her experience as a governess at spooky Thornfield Hall for the ward of Edward Rochester, a well-heeled yet ill-mannered man whose frustration rarely simmers.
Brontë’s gothic romance novel has been adapted many times in theater, film and even a television mini-series. Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles starred in a memorable 1943 film version. This begs the question: Does the theater-going public really need another “Jane Eyre”? Does it want another “Jane Eyre”?
Williamson obviously believes that Brontë’s steely yet flexible hero clearly resonates today, even in the story’s Gothic accoutrements, when characters’ passions burn through the layers of clothing. Indeed, Williamson’s production vividly humanizes all of the story’s characters. The actors have plenty of breathing and elbow room in Ilona Somogyi’s splendid period costumes that not only look good to the audience but apparently feel good on the actors. They wear them like they own them, just as they own Brontë’s heart-felt words.
Williamson’s conceit is to have Jane (a magnetically intense Helen Sadler) directly address the audience, with narration lifted from the novel, to fast-forward through less dramatic passages. These narrative asides not only preserve some of Jane’s most insightful and conflicting thoughts, but they also serve to cover scene transitions taking place upstage of her on scene designer Nick Vaughan’s clever revolving stage that enables scenes to stroll through Jane’s past as if on a passerelle.
Sadler’s Jane plays beautifully off of Chandler Williams’ equally intense Rochester, a soul equally beset by his woes as Jane. Since the story is one of intrigue, mystery and (mostly) unrequited love, Rochester’s most haunting demon — his darkest secret — is naturally only revealed late in the game when hell is on the cusp of breaking loose. And let it be noted that the director, designers and cast handle the delicate matter of reveling Rochester’s indelible demon with maximum surprise without Grand Guignol effects. What or who haunts our beleaguered Rochester, however ghastly, is a human worthy of empathy.
Williamson surrounds Sadler and Williams with a solid ensemble including Felicity Jones Latta (Mrs. Fairfax, Aunt Reed and Hannah), Grayson DeJesus (Mason, St. John Rivers and John Reed) and Steve Routman (Priest, John and the Doctor).
Hartford Stage’s “Jane Eyre” is an earnest, thoughtful production graced with actors able and willing to expose their hearts without wearing them on their sleeves.