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Tuesday, 16 April 2013 00:05

'Jane Eyre' is a visual and emotional love letter from the Victorian era

Written by Tina Farmer
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'Jane Eyre' is a visual and emotional love letter from the Victorian era
mustardseedtheatre.com / John Lamb

I approached the Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" with a "how are they going to make it work on stage" skepticism. The 400-plus page novel spans a woman's life, from abusive childhood experiences through near death, attempted murder, arson and a suicide to finding love, happiness and acceptance. That simply seems a bit too much to convey in a single night of theater.

I am pleased to report that the production delivers a very entertaining evening of theater that overwhelmingly succeeds for a broader audience, as well as fans of period pieces, complete with a Hollywood-like happy ending.

Director Deanna Jent keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, skillfully manipulating the onstage action to emphasize the story. Jent also successfully incorporates musical interludes and songs to set-up, and provide a continuation of, the show's theme during several scene changeovers.

Another transition that works well are the few costume changes seen by the audience while expository dialogue is delivered. The fact they are judiciously applied makes them that much more effective in keeping this member of the audience fully engaged in the performance. Even the show's lead character Jane Eyre, played with delightful charm and spirit at every age by Sarah Cannon, has just a few costume changes, and most are accomplished by the addition or subtraction of simple pieces.

The Victorian set, designed with a touch of gothic by Dunsi Dai and scene design assistant Jennifer Kuberka, makes excellent use of the stage, setting a marvelous visual tone for the show. The number of levels, as well as the liberal use of multiple entry points to and from the stage, again helps to reinforce action and keep the show moving forward. As the show progresses to its climatic moments, the changeovers feel shorter, and the use of multiple entrances and exits more pronounced, increasing the building tension.

Lighting by Michael Sullivan and a lovely range of versatile, period costumes by JC Kracijek, provide the perfect finishing touches to complete the show's period setting. The attention to detail in these areas is no less present than in the direction and set design. This is particularly evident in scenes where the upper and servant classes mingle, as well as in the fluidity of the movements of the ghost/angel. The lighting seems to glow from her veil, complementing the silent but expressive performance given by the supporting actress.

The script, by Julie Beckman, could certainly be problematic for some actors. There are many sections were dialogue is delivered in the third person, and at times Cannon's Jane uses "dear reader" to speak directly to the audience. Dent and her cast choose, quite successfully, to deliver these moments in character, inviting the audience into the story-telling circle rather than reciting events. This affect quickly feels natural to the performance and helps to keep the story fresh, as if the retelling is occurring in concert within the action.

The actors, Ms. Cannon as Jane Eyre and Shaun Sheley as Mr. Rochester, as well as a strong supporting cast of Gregory Cuellar, Katie Donnelly, Laura Ernst, Kathryn Hunter, Richard Lewis, Carmen Russell, Donna Weinsting, B. Weller and Leslie Wobbe, turn in an excellent ensemble performance. Additionally, Cannon and Sheley create genuine affection and the appropriate tension in their relationship. Some of Cannon's most memorable scenes are her discovery of her feelings for Sheley's Rochester and her thoughtful refusal of her cousin's proposaldue to those lingering feelings.

Cannon's skillful representation of Jane Eyre from a young girl of about ten through her mid to late twenties is impressive as well. The tone of her voice and her inflections change quite distinctly, yet naturally, throughout the performance. Additionally, even though Cannon is present onstage the entire show, her performance remains energetic and focused, no small task for any actor.

Sheley's Rochester is impetuous at times, but always sincere, which only heightens the empathy I felt for him when his secret is revealed. Sheley does a nice job of conveying shame and despair while desperately trying to hold onto his chance for happiness.

Although they are not individually credited, the supporting cast members each have at least one memorable moment throughout the show.

The female characters shine as the conniving Reed daughters and the cruel, unmovable Mrs. Reed as well as the vivacious and vocally talented Ms. Ingram, the unbalanced Bertha Mason, the affable Mrs. Fairfax, Jane's cousins and the aforementioned ghost/angel. The males also create a number of memorable small scenes as the bully John Reed, the sinister headmaster of the Lowood school, the brother of Bertha Mason seeking honor, the befuddled minister and equally befuddled but kind missionary cousin. Together these supporting characters help to create a rich fabric from which Jane Eyre's story unravels.

The Mustard Seed Theatre's performance is overwhelmingly enjoyable, although there are a few less effective moments in the show. At times, particularly near the end of the first act and opening of the second, the show drags just a bit, and the characters seem less focused.  But these moments pass quickly and are more than compensated for by the success of the overall production and, particularly, Ms. Cannon's passionate performance, which embraces the spirit and soul of Brontë's beloved heroine.

"Jane Eyre" is a show with broad appeal to fans of the Brontë sisters, period productions and happy endings, as well as those who appreciate a wonderfully produced evening of theater. Performances run through April 28th, in the fine arts building on the Fontbonne campus. For more information, visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com or call 314-719-8060.

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