Giving a new twist to the classic story often studied in high school English class, Westmont College’s production of Charlotte Bront»’s Jane Eyre promises passion and intrigues enough to fascinate even the most unfocused students.
This dramatic adaptation, which was written by Polly Teale, allows viewers a more in-depth look at Jane Eyre’s inner struggles as she fights to control her natural spirits and desire for freedom in accordance with the rigid expectations of women in her society. Teale is already well known for her earlier theatrical adaptations of other classic novels including Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Teale was described by London’s Guardian as having “single-handedly reinvented the page-to-stage genre as inspired by rather than handcuffed to the original novels,” and her inspiration certainly shows in this reworking of Jane Eyre.
For the Westmont Theatre Arts Department, Jane Eyre continues an established tradition of producing contemporary theatrical adaptations of classic novels. When first performed by the theater company Shared Experience in 1997, Teale’s version was acclaimed for its insight not only into the characters of the novel, but into Bront» as well.
This interest was keenly felt by the director of the current production, Mitchell Thomas, when he viewed Shared Experience’s performance of the play. Thomas said when he saw Shared Experience’s Jane Eyre in London two summers ago, he “loved the style of the production,” adding that Teale’s “adaptation honors the story, and makes it come alive-not just as a museum-quality production, but as a story told in an inspiring and dramatic way.”
Jane Eyre, long critically acclaimed as the ultimate example of gothic romance, follows the title character, a literal “plain Jane,” from her life as an unloved orphan to her new job as governess at the Thornfield Estate. In the play, Jane (Sarah Halford) meets the mysterious owner, Edward Rochester (Nolan Hamlin), and becomes drawn to him as her time at the house continues. Nevertheless, this momentary harmony is inevitably destroyed when some old secrets in the attic are revealed, leaving Jane to decide for herself what her true understanding of love must be.
Thomas said the play’s biggest departure from the novel is the “fusing of the mad woman in the attic with Jane as her younger self,” implying that Jane’s free-spirited alter ego is visible as a distant shadow throughout the course of the play. Thomas views the alteration of the novel as a transformation, explaining, “These are the fun things in reenacting literature-different things are highlighted in different adaptations, and different lenses are used to view the play. There is an insane, almost vampire-like person in the attic, yet we care for her, as she and Jane have a relationship that is multileveled and multifaceted.”
With an all-student cast that ranges from first-years to seniors, this Jane Eyre is entirely Westmont’s own. Six of the nine roles in the show are for women, revealing something Thomas said affected his choice to perform this particular play-the pool of profoundly talented female drama students at Westmont.
In conjunction with both Jane Eyre and its February production of The Odyssey, the Theatre Arts Department has designed a new program allowing high school students access to the performances. This program, titled Found in Translation: Great Literature in the Theatre, will be extended to high schools from Oxnard to Goleta and will involve students who have read the texts. According to Thomas, the goal of the program is to “literally help bring the written word to life-not only reinforcing the learning process, but encouraging students to interact more deeply with the literature.”
To make the program available to more than 1,300 students, the cast of the play has scheduled four special extra showings. In addition to viewing the performance, the high school students will have the opportunity to become involved in theater workshops, literary presentations, and a question-and-answer session with the actors after the show.
To all theater-goers, both young and old, Thomas said his biggest desire is for his theater productions “to have openness, so that people can plug themselves into the show.” The message he hopes audiences will leave with is that “although difficult, love has a place in this world.”
The Theatre Arts Department at Westmont College (955 La Paz Rd.) presents Jane Eyre Friday, October 19 through Saturday, October 27 at 8 p.m. Call 565-7040 for tickets and more information.