Early on in Stephen Sachs’s masterful adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, John, played by Chuma Gault, tells a cunningly childlike riddle. “What’s got four eyes and can’t see? Mississippi.” The play, which is set on July 4, 1964, makes the point of this riddle abundantly clear in 90 rapid and tumultuous minutes. The State of Mississippi has blinded itself not only to the social change sweeping the nation, but also to the tortured conflicts that lie at its own heart. Chief among these is the racist system that binds blacks to their white employers even as it denies their humanity. The intimate violence of such habitual domestic subordination catches fire in Miss Julie and jumps what limited barriers exist between the races, setting the household ablaze with illicit passion.
John, the chauffeur, is tacitly engaged to the cook, Christine, wonderfully played by Judith Moreland. The opening scene shows the two relaxing in the kitchen after a long day’s work. Downtown, freedom riders are in a running battle with the brutal Greenwood, Mississippi, police force. As John sits at the tiny kitchen table, reading the news haltingly to the illiterate Christine, one is called upon to imagine the loneliness and terror the early stages of the civil rights movement must have occasioned in those who had been brought up in the shadow of slavery. Neither John nor Christine is quite ready for the change they both know is coming. Their argument about Christine’s participation in a voter registration drive is the play’s first indication that dreams of freedom rarely take the same shape in two separate minds, no matter how closely involved the people might be.
Enter Miss Julie, the blonde teenage daughter of the house. Her red dress says it all-this woman is the sexual equivalent of an accident waiting to happen. By carousing with other members of the family’s servant community, she has already raised Christine’s defenses, and when Christine smells Julie’s lilac perfume on John’s clothing, it’s the first signal of the conflagration to come.
Tracy Middendorf is incredible as Julie, a whirlwind of manic desire and lightning-quick reactions. Her chemistry with Gault’s John burns from the moment she enters to the last bitter lines. If you are interested in acting at the limits of expression and daring, you can’t afford to miss this spectacular performance.