This ambitious stage version of Charlotte Bront»’s novel Jane Eyre, adapted several years ago in England by Polly Teale and directed here for Westmont by Mitchell Thomas, is likely to be remembered for a long time, both as a successful show in its own right, and as an example of an adaptation that fulfills the promise of its source material. Sarah Halford shines throughout the show’s three action-packed hours in the title role, surely one of the most demanding that any actress in Santa Barbara-or anywhere else for that matter-will attempt this year. Halford weaves a convincing spell as the enigmatic and splendidly willful Jane, showing both verbal command of a huge role and a sophisticated sense of her character’s development over a period of decades.
Teale’s most remarkable dramatic innovation involves the way she handles the character of Bertha Mason, the so-called madwoman in the attic. As played by Marie Ponce in this production, Mason is onstage all night, interacting with and shadowing Jane and revealing the symbolic connection between her seemingly feral character and Jane’s stormy inner life. Ponce is great; clearly relishing this opportunity to express the universality of women’s emotional distress in a manner that is as poetic as it is harrowingly realistic. The redoubtable Nolan Hamlin, like every other cast member besides Halford and Ponce, plays more than one role, and he too is excellent, particularly in discharging his responsibilities as Rochester. In the roles of Adele, Helen Burns, and Mary Rivers, Beth Segura is another standout. Her rambunctious physical characterization of Adele is a key element in establishing the play’s emotional dynamics with the audience.
Before you rush out and see this Jane Eyre though, you should prepare yourself-not necessarily by re-reading the novel, which is not absolutely necessary-but by practicing sitting still. At a solid one hour and forty-five minutes, the first act is as long as many entire plays. In fact, if there is anything that mars this otherwise stellar production, it is the imbalance between Act One and Act Two, which is only about half as long. In any case, taken as a whole, this gigantic Jane is a triumph.