Any list of the most powerful female characters in literature will always include a 19th-century orphan -- with no family, no money and no beauty -- near the top.
That maiden of low station, of course, is Jane Eyre, the title character of Charlotte Brontë's revolutionary 1847 novel, applauded ever since for shattering female stereotypes and empowering women to challenge their straightjacketed lives. A woman writing about the interior life of a woman has been a coming-of-age must-read for generations of teenage girls.
When a savvy artistic director is assembling a season of plays, a title that appeals to a large segment of a theatre's audience -- women make up at least 65 per cent -- has enormous box-office potential. Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Steven Schipper was searching for a grand romance in the vein of recent top ticket-sellers like Pride and Prejudice and last January's Gone With the Wind. Jane Eyre is the mother of the romance genre.
"Years ago, I saw a great adaptation by Polly Teale in London, and was smitten," says Schipper.
He hadn't read Jane Eyre and didn't realize that the adaptation was a radical departure from Bront´'s second novel (first to be published) and worried it might alienate those that worshipped the original.
"So we set out on a quest to find an equally excellent version that was true to Bront´'s text, and none of the scripts we looked at came closer than Julie Beckman's," he says. "Its charms are the same as its heroine's: it is diminutive, intelligent, good-hearted and filled with romantic longing."
Beckman's adaptation of Jane Eyre, featuring Ontario-based actors Jennifer Dzialoszynski as the Gothic role model and Tim Campbell as her soulmate, Edward Rochester, opens Jan. 9.
"It's been a favourite story of mine for many years," says the dark-haired Dzialoszynski, last seen here playing numerous supporting roles in Gone With the Wind. "I have a beautiful copy that I love and have had for a few years. It's a red, hardcover, velvet-bound copy. Oftentimes I'd be reading it on the subway or at work and people would think I was reading the Bible."
It is a bible for some young women, who counsel themselves to be "more like Jane." She's someone who stands up for herself and believes that she's worthy of a good life and being treated well at a time when sexism against women was a way of life.
"Charlotte Brontë was a feminist before they coined the word feminist," says the production's director, Tracey Flye, who helmed The Penelopiad at the RMTC Warehouse last February. "I wouldn't say she is a bra-burning feminist in the sense we know. She was dealing with these concepts long before anyone else did."
It should not be forgotten that Jane was looking for love, not women's rights. The heartwarming love-conquers-all storyline continues to be its enduring attraction.
"There is nothing better than a love story and watching someone finally triumphing," says Flye, who was the choreographer for Gone With the Wind. "People question their decisions all the time -- 'Should I or shouldn't I, what does my gut say?'"
The title role requires an actress who can play Jane from the age of 10 to about 30. That Dzialoszynski is five feet tall and has portrayed kids many times before, including a newspaper boy in Gone With the Wind, helped her stand out in the auditioning process. The biggest role of her career requires a performer who could access the tempestuousness of an irate child and the staid comportment of a governess.
One of the other key requirements facing the 28-year-old Dzialoszynski is to become a mirror into the rich interior world of Jane.
"There is a certain introvertedness that she has that makes it a challenge, especially on a big stage, to be the quiet, guarded, cautious young woman but makes sure everyone in the back row of the balcony can see it," says Dzialoszynski, who leaves the stage only a few times during the two-hour plus drama.
The Ryerson University graduate has developed a sideline as a stunt actor and fight director. She was a stunt double in the 2009 horror film Orphan as a child who gets pushed down by the star and breaks her ankle.
"I'm a very niche market," she says. "I'm a five-foot female and a lot of the time for big stunts they are looking for very strong, tall men."
That's the spirit of a modern-day Jane, who asserts her independence of heart and mind.
"I love how strong Jane is," she says. "People attempt to control her but she won't allow anyone to tell her what she can or cannot live with."