A single lit candle sits on the otherwise dark Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre stage at the outset of Julie Beckman's satisfying adaptation of Jane Eyre.
It is soon picked up by a plain young woman whose internal fire will light up the rest of Charlotte Bront´'s 19th-century Cinderella story. Jane, outfitted in an austere grey dress with a matching severe gaze, appears alone in an unwelcoming world, which, we will soon see, has tried to make her feel small and inconsequential. As any reader of Jane Eyre knows, the world never had a chance of breaking this maiden's will of steel.
The opening-night performance treated the book's generations of fans to not only its deep-dish love story and proto-feminism, but to the way simple theatrical flourishes can enhance its enjoyment. One of the prime pleasures of Bront´'s novel is its first-person narrative and direct address. Beckman's version retains Jane's voice as the character's narrate themselves, even when they are on their deathbed.
Our waifish heroine's early life as an unwanted, abused orphan is truly Dickensian and might be relentlessly depressing to watch if not for the physical comic relief cleverly injected by director Tracey Flye, last seen at the helm of The Penelopiad last season at the Warehouse. The RMTC production is rather spare, visually, with any needed prop wheeled onto the stage by a member of the compact, but seriously versatile, cast of eight. The parade of designer Michael Gianfrancesco's period finery is short but adequate.
The key first meeting scene between good girl Jane and the charismatic bad boy Edward Rochester occurs on an icy lane near Thornfield Hall. Her master Rochester is riding a steed -- he appears atop the shoulders of two male actors in formal suits. It's no scene from War Horse, but it succeeds in lightening the mood while reminding us that theatre is play-acting that depends crucially on the imagination of its audience.
But all that staging will be for nothing if Jane and Rochester do not create some palpable heat from their chalk-and-cheese courtship. The attraction can be hard to detect at first as their conversations are laced with swirling undercurrents of possibility. Her grave features soon come alive in his presence, while his dark moods are lifted by her into a teasing playfulness.
The pale, elfin Jennifer Dzialoszynski radiates an underdog quality that makes viewers pull for her to succeed in her quest to show that a woman of modest looks can be just as compelling as a beautiful one. She plays her starchy and stoic, dressed in grey throughout -- a plain Jane to the end. In Jane's bid for self-preservation, Dzialoszynski reveals the restless intelligence and no-nonsense fortitude that hides underneath her stiff upper lip.
Campbell is swoon-worthy enough, thanks to his mutton-chop magnetism, but more importantly, he captures Rochester's moodiness. That mercurial nature keeps the audience wondering whether he will or won't make a move on Jane, which the book first revealed over 150 years ago.
The work of the supporting cast, mostly locals, is excellent, taking on up to eight roles that often require quick costume changes backstage. Sometimes there is no time -- the mail mistress, played to full comic impact by Gord Tanner, can be seen to be sporting side whiskers under her bonnet. Jeremy Walmsley shows impressive range from steed to nasty John Reed. Miriam Smith's wide spectrum of characters include salt-of-the-earth housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax and the evil-stepmother-like aunt Mrs. Reed. Charlene Van Buekenhout is responsible for portraying a book full of characters herself, every one is distinct and detailed. Julia Course, an import making her RMTC debut, does fine work as Rochester's love interest Blanche, as well as "the strange, unearthly thing" Bertha.
At two hours of playing time with an intermission, purists will lament, if not wail, at the lines and scenes dropped from the beloved book, but Beckman and Flye succeed in wringing most of the passion, fury and pain out of Jane Eyre.