Pride Films and Plays and director Elizabeth Swanson have brought together a very close-quarters US premiere staging of Emma Donoghue’s already very intimate “I Know My Own Heart.” It’s a bittersweet lesbian love story that comes wrapped in intricate layers of social code, secret languages, and playing roles that don’t come naturally. What results is a simultaneously funny and tense look at how real life is conducted under the strict gaze of 19th century moral code. The artistic team is intent on capturing rebellious moments that are disguised as innocent female friendship, but are practically bursting with love, jealousy, and longing.
Anne Lister (Vahishta Vafadari) is counting the days until her uncle passes away, leaving her in control of his tidy Yorkshire estate and independently wealthy. She’s a local oddity in the early 1800’s, dressing all in black, and engaging in unladylike conduct, like running the estate for her sickly uncle, and weeeell, pining for the company of lower-class farmers’ daughters like Marianne Brown (Lauren Grace Thompson). The two discover they are mutually smitten: Marianne with Anne’s brash confidence, and Anne with with the way Marianne “waves her creamy neck about like a swan.”
When Marianne is pressured by her family to accept a proposal from a man, the ladies wed each other in secret and vow to be together when Anne can claim her inheritance, or when Marianne’s much older suitor passes away. But a lot can happen when your secret wife is away. Whispers (and firsthand knowledge) about Anne’s particular womanly wiles inspire Nance (Jessie Ellingsen) and Tib (Eleanor Katz) to form a sisterhood of Yorkshire spinsters, devoted to her. Drawn in a hundred conflicting directions, Anne must come to terms if she’s even capable of a (relatively) ordinary marriage.
One particular element that informed the story, is how the actors were staged, sandwiched between audiences on either side, invoking the feeling of being bookended, or always being under a watchful eye, even as a patron. Director Elizabeth Swanson pulls off the impressive feat of making the staging compelling and cohesive from every angle.
As Tib, a girlhood friend of Anne’s who shares in her love of other women, but has never put her own feelings for her friend into action, Eleanor Katz is swift, guarded, and wields her humor like a deadly weapon. Jessie Ellingsen is intrepid as Marianne’s little sister Nance, who is determined to break into her sister’s secret sexual cabal, not as someone who could truly use a sexual outlet, but more to obtain a rebellious trophy before she’s married and her life becomes tedious.
The performers who shoulder the lion’s share of lust, joy, longing and defeat are Lauren Grace Thompson as Marianne and Vahishta Vafadari as Anne. Thompson is a frank ray of sunshine as Marianne. She brings humor and viewpoints on queerness that seem ripped from the 21st century. As Anne, Vafadari steps in as a romantic hero, not unlike Mr. Darcy, with girl after girl swooning at her commanding feet. She daydreams that in an ideal world, she sees herself “in breeches and having a penis — just a small one.” Her complexities — and inability to say no — wind up unraveling everything she imagined would be simple in her life.
What I appreciate most about “I know My Own Heart” is that it tells a joyful and heartbreaking story, but it refrains from doling out punishments and tragedies to the intrepid women it follows. It may not be exactly what you’d expect from a sweeping period romance, but it points onward, with the knowledge that this story has hope and is far from over.
DICE RATING: d12 –– “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Anne Lister’s milkshake brings all the girls to the yard.
Show: “I Know My Own Heart”
Company: Pride Films & Plays
Venue: Pride Arts Center (4147 N. Broadway)