Can the image of a fictional character become the driving force in someone's life? The London Theatre troupe, Shared Experiences, with playwright Polly Teale as one of their directors and leaders, has had a series of relative successes with adaptations of works of literature. Their last Teale production, "After Mrs. Rochester", which uses Jean Rhys' novel "The Wide Sargasso Sea" (1996) as a starting point for delving into that author's troubled life and her particular identification with the first Mrs. Rochester, closed after a decent run in November 2003. The Wellesley Summer Theatre's production this January amounts to the North American premiere of this complex work. Just as this script marked a step forward in Teale's work adapting literature to the stage, so WST's production marks another step forward in the company's development as one of the top notch professional theatres associated with an venerable institution of higher learning in New England. Previous WST shows have included Teresa Rebeck's "The Family of Mann" and Laura Harringtonís IRNE and Clauder-winning ìHallowed Groundî, Helen Edmundson's "The Clearing" and James Costigan's "Little Moon of St. Albans", each of the latter received Moss Hart Awards from the NETC, Sands Hall's adaptation of "Little Women", and Teale's adaptations of "Jane Eyre" and "Anna Karenina" among other quality scripts.
The company was founded in 1996 with Wellesley faculty member Nora Hussey as its director, to be an adjunct to the school's venerable drama program. WST uses local professional actors, Equity and otherwise, along with talented students, in shows of literary merit which address troubling issues. Working in the black box Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre on the lower level of Wellesley's Alumnae Hall, Hussey has developed a very effective and economical epic style, which members of the company have honed into a effective storytelling tool, helped immeasurably by Ken Loewit's interesting unit sets. This production of "After Mrs. Rochester" once again had Wellesley grad Alicia Kahn, now with the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, returning for her ninth appearance for WST in one of the two major roles. Kahn plays Ella--- Jean Rhys in her younger days, before her nom de plume. The writer in her older years, in the painful throes of trying to finish her book, was played by local character actress Lisa Foley, who has done more than a dozen shows with Hussey. Both these fine talents, onstage constantly throughout the show, were joined by recent grad Melinda McGrew--in her fifth WST season and now going for an NYU/Actor's Studio MFA-- as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs. Rochester, the focus of Rhys' novel ìWide Sargasso Seaî. McGrew played the same role in the company's production of Teale's "Jane Eyre" two years ago, with Kahn in the title role. Ensemble playing between these three strong performers produced lyrical and passionate moments enhanced by their previous shared stage experience.
The London production was done with five other actors taking the two dozen or so other roles in the script. WST adds six additional performers, bringing the cast to fourteen, offering more possibilities for the complex doubling required. Local stalwart Stephen Cooper, back for his 8th WST show, began as Ella's doctor father in the West Indies, and appeared later as her first publisher and sometime lover, Ford Maddox Ford. Peripatetic Charlotte Peed, in her 3rd WST show, played opposite him as Ella's neurotic English mother, and reappeared as Ford's accommodating wife, Stella. The other four men in the ensemble handled a variety of roles. Rep actor Doug Lockwood--who specializes in performing Wallace Shawn's "The Fever" in people's homes-- played the fictional Edward Rochester and the all-too-real Launcelot, who plucks Ella from the music hall chorus to be his mistress. The pregnancy that results from this liason results in a daughter who spends much her early life in an orphanage. Richard La France, praised for his Publick Theatre work last summer, appeared first as Ella's seductive uncle, then later as her put-upon second husband, plus two walk-ons. Peter Papadopoulus, a Trinity Rep grad, played Ella's Dutch shyster of a first husband, who left her penniless in Vienna, plus a comic turn as the RADAR voice teacher unable to cope with her West Indian accent. John Boller, also in his 3rd WST show, was convincing both as a schoolmaster who added to Ella's young misery and as an appropriately crude music hall manager. All these effortless and practiced characterizations were just part of the tapestry of this complex production.
Other returning Wellesley grads were central to the story. Lauren Balmer in her 5th WST show and also at Actor's Studio, played the pivotal role of Rhys' neglected daughter, who, having been urgently summoned, arrives to find her mother barricaded in her room. The play proceeds in flashbacks as the daughter's frustration mounts. Balmer also has a turn as an obsequious shop assistant. Heather Boas, another WST regular studying at the Studio, appeared as Jane Eyre, and Ella's knowing pal in London, Maudie. Another WST member, Sarah Barton, appeared as a chorus girl and as Ella's disapproving landlady. Current Wellesley student Kelly Galvin, in her first year at the college, was also a chorus girl. From downtown, Kortney Adams seen recently in Tempest's docudrama "Body and Sold" and Animus' "Tereus in Fragments", played Tite, Ella's black playmate, and also that character's mother, Meta, the family's housekeeper. Adam's apt characterizations added considerable depth to the show. She brought the whole problem of Ella's identification with Bertha Mason, also from the tropics, to the fore. There were no compromises in any of these performances.
The biggest problem facing the Wellesley Summer Theatre, besides new campus construction which has made Alumnae Hall hard to get to, is the size of their theatre and the limited length of their runs. More local theatre goers, and theatre students, need to see work of the quality Nora Hussey and her troupe consistently present, to appreciate what working as an ensemble over a period of time can achieve. By the by, it was pleasant to see that real props have mostly replaced mimed objects, a technique which however well done smacks of acting class. With a cadre of local professionals who've appeared in their productions over the last six years, and a growing pool of graduate actresses, WST should be able to continue its stellar work, incorporating new talent as they go.
Other institutions should take a good look at their quiet progress. It should be noted that Emerson's production of Jeffrey Hatcher's "The Fabulous Invalid" starring Alice Ripley at the end of the fall, and BU Fine Arts "Hay Fever" last spring were tentative steps in that direction. At the ART however, Institute students appear in major productions mostly as groups. The continuing inspiration of working with mature actors--aka the apprentice system--has been the backbone of the theatre since time-immemorial. It's time that practice was more generally incorporated into higher education, which, as Guthrie noted, has been ambivalent about professional theatre, not to say downright hostile, in the past. But if you canít wait for a local production, watch for "Shared Experiences" themselves; the troupeís planning an international tour.
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