Review: “Jane Eyre” (Lifeline Theatre)

Show: Jane Eyre

Mr. Rochester (John Henry Roberts) woos Jane (Anu Bhatt) in Lifeline's Jane Eyre. Photo provided by Lifeline Theatre
Mr. Rochester (John Henry Roberts) woos Jane (Anu Bhatt) in Lifeline’s Jane Eyre. Photo provided by Lifeline Theatre

Company: Lifeline Theatre

Venue: Lifeline Theatre Mainstage

Dice Roll: 19

When Chris told me I’d rolled Jane Eyre this week, I was very pleased indeed, on two counts: first, that Lifeline is producing it because they always tell stories well; and second, that the story in question is Jane Eyre.  A quick recap of the basic plot: Jane is a poor orphan, estranged from her nearest relatives and raised at an austere school where obedience is prized over free thinking. As a result, Jane is frequently punished for challenging the system. She has one friend, Helen a beacon of goodness, who dies soon into their friendship, and whose ghost trails Jane as she grows up into a self-sufficient, wary young woman.

Jane soon finds herself a position in the house of the mysteriously absent Mr. Rochester as the governess to his young French ward, Adele.  She settles in comfortably enough until Rochester returns and promptly flips her world upside down. Meantime, the house seems to be haunted by a pyromanic ghost who nearly does in first Rochester and later the visiting Mr. Mason. Still, Jane and Rochester eventually pledge their troth, after weathering the visit of the Misses Ingrams and their posse, and all seems well until a surprise visitor interrupts their wedding. Jane flees to the moors, where she is taken in by the Rivers family and gradually finds her feet again as a country schoolteacher.  Things seem to progress nicely, with Jane eventually coming into a lost inheritance, discovering close family, and even agreeing to pursue a mission to India, when Rochester’s voice calls to her across time and space. She returns to Thornfield Hall and the arms of her beloved Rochester, whom events have rendered both injured but also marriageable. And they all lived happily ever after.

What’s extraordinary about the tale is not the romance, but the journey of Jane as she fights the expectations of society to live on her own terms. Unloved by her closest relation, Aunt Reed, severely disciplined by the headmaster of Lowood, and finally, hollowed by the loss of her dear friend Helen, Jane collects ghosts that influence her every movement. And so, in this version the ghosts are embodied by actors who follow Jane and challenge her every decision with repetitive phrases calculated to incur crippling self-doubt. Yeah, I loved that. I really loved that.

Most of the actors played more than one role (excepting Jane and Rochester), and while they all succeeded, Kyra Morris stands out in the specificity she brings to each character. She is wonderfully charming as Diana Rivers, which contrasts starkly with the cold awfulness of Aunt Reed. Company member Heather Currie also flips ably between concerned housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax , the hilariously stuffy Lady Ingram, and the wide-eyed country housemaid Hannah.

John Henry Roberts is outstanding as Mr. Rochester. From the moment he tumbles onstage, he owns the boiling passion of a man living in a torment of his own making. The actor has a way of making Rochester home in on Jane with his whole being, even when he’s deliberately casual. He’s a bloody time-bomb waiting to go off, and it’s magnificent.  He throws so much of himself out to Jane that it seems inevitable that she should fall for him.

And so we come to my main problem with the show: inevitability. Passion that sucks in an audience depends on stakes that matter to the characters. The worst trap an actor can fall into is playing the end of the play – the happily every after -from the beginning, and that’s exactly what I saw in the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. In order for it to mean something in the larger story, Jane has to put herself through trials and tribulations to get to the point where she can accept Rochester’s love for her. She has to deny her feelings, argue against them, acknowledge and beat societal concerns not just based on class but also on gender, and figure her way through them while fostering the spark of hope his love brings to her. Unfortunately I did not see that journey in Anu Bhatt’s Jane.  I saw a Jane who accepted each obstacle that came her way with the patient resolve to wait it out, because there was never any question that she would end up with Rochester. Interestingly, where Ms. Bhatt’s Jane comes alive is in the second act scenes with the Rivers family. It finally felt as though Jane was living in the present, and not anticipating the future.

Lifeline has produced a fascinating treat of a set – the bare brick walls are exposed between floor-to-ceiling posts set along the side walls and across the back that can be angled an lowered to give the impression of many different structures. Much use is made of the narrow second level, adding an air of claustrophobia to the night scenes set in the Hall, when odd things go bump in the night and characters struggle to see by their flickering candles.  Some chairs and the clever use of a few lengths of white cloth complete the set, and it’s all they need to create the starkness of Lowood School, Aunt Reed’s sickbed, or the parlour of Thornfield Hall.

Props to Jana Anderson’s costuming, which marries period shapes with a distinctly steampunk gypsy flavour.  And Christopher Kriz’s sound design is just cool. The story itself transcends the period in which it was written; why trap it visually and aurally as well? The modernist take on design helped to illuminate the timelessness of the ideas in the story: self-determination, making peace with your past, allowing change in your life – you get the idea.

Can I recommend this? Absolutely. It’s a beautiful, well-done show, and if it’s not quite my Jane Eyre, so what? It’s spooky, funny, and has some really beautiful moments. The acting is well-done, and the design is excellent. Take a trip to Thornfield; you won’t regret it.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Your past informs your present and you control your future.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”