Adapted by Rebecca Chace
from the novel by Kate Chopin
Directed by Jane Jones
Book-It Repertory Theatre
305 Harrison St. Seattle, WA 206-22216-0833

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

There is a point late in Book-It Reps luminous adaptation of late 19th century novelist Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" where her protagonist, Edna Pontellier (Book-It Co-Artistic Director Myra Platt), makes a startling pronouncement. Arguing with a friend, Edna rejects as intolerable the notion that the ultimate role of women is to subjugate their will to the service of raising her children, "I would give up the unessential," she avouches, "I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself." The words ring with defiance and certainty, to the shock and disbelief of her companion. It's a moment charged with dramatic intensity, rife with unspoken longing and a barely concealed contempt for the societal shackles of which Edna has only recently become aware; the rebellious battle cry of a fully conscious human being asserting that the definition of a purposeful life can only be determined by the person living it.

Chopin's story, published at the turn of the 20th century, was rejected by critics who were as shocked as Edith's confidante by its assertions of female autonomy, sexual liberalism, and its "scandalous" rejection of the central tenets of then prevailing ideals of "True Womanhood"; the resulting firestorm of critical vituperation it engendered essentially ended her career as novelist. More than half a century would pass before those seeking out the cultural and literary antecedents to the modern feminist movement would rediscover Chopin's prescient novel, along with the works of her contemporaries Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other women writers who dared to question the prevailing attitudes and mores of their time.

This remount of Book-it's production from their 1999-2000, sensitively and intelligently directed by Jane Jones cogently translates Chopin's lush, sensuous renderings of southern Louisiana and Creole culture. But, as much as Jones, her cast and production staff (Scenic Designer Greg Carter, Lighting Designer Brian Healy, Costumer Harmony Arnold and Music Director Edd Key) are to be credited with embodying the physicality of turn-of-the-century New Orleans and its environs, it is their sublime realization of the book's indelible characters, along with Chopin's controversial themes and evocative symbolism that makes this work truly shine with inspired light.

Based loosely on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, "The Awakening" tells Edith's story in unsentimental terms, beginning with her gradual realization of a soul-numbing sense of dissatisfaction with her life, engendered during a month long summer holiday spent at a Gulf Coast resort. On Grand Isle, Edith's world of confining domesticity slowly comes into focus, and throughout the course of the story she strips away the social, cultural and moral restrictions that heretofore have dictated the daily course of her life, emerging in the end, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, as the fully-realized embodiment of her own conscious desires. Although one may question the necessity for the rather ignoble fate that awaits her at the end, there can be but little doubt that it represents the supreme act of will, and in that ultimately, it is not the manner of her death, but rather the journey of her life that makes Edith's story so compelling. Jones, Platt and company make the journey well worth taking. Doubtless a few grumbling souls will carp that it's little more than a vanity piece, but if so it begs the question of why for example Platt doesn't trod the boards more often. She brings a quiet dignity to her portrayal of the disaffected Edith, and even in her character's moments of confusion and frustration, when the whirlwind of emotions encapsulates her, she provides a calm center of focus and attention that makes even the often troublesome Book-It narrative declamatory style of presentation flow with a natural sense of grace. In charting Edith's extrication from the suffocating straitjacket of conjugal obligation and sexual repression, and into a liberating sense of the awareness of her potential as a human being, Platt creates a memorably refined characterization that anchors the production form beginning to end.

Hans Altwies turns in another subtly compelling performance, a near 180 shift from his recent portrayal of the egomaniacal Iago in Seattle Shakes "Othello", this time conveying the aspect of Edith's unrequited summer companion, Robert. In a way, the role does lend itself to a sort of Shakespearean comparison, as Robert in his own way takes on a role very similar to that of the Clown in "Twelfth Night", an intelligent, witty, and desperately lonely young man who willfully emasculates himself in order to be nearer the object of his own desire.

As Edith's friend and confidante, Adele (Melinda Deane) creates a nice contrast to Platt's searching discontent. Adele is the epitome of Victorian womanhood, willing to subvert every aspect of her being into the care and nurturing of her children and husband. At the other extreme is Lori Larsen's brittle, unabashedly cynical Mademoiselle Reisz, whose cantankerous, unladylike nature is tolerated by her bourgeois companions for the simple reason that even they recognize her superior abilities. Larson draws comic moments from Chace's script like a cactus sucking water from the sere desert; often with little more than an arched eyebrow and a deliciously expectant pause for effect.

Musical Director Key has suffused the work with a vibrant succession of period and regional musical styles such as Cajun jure, waltzes, even a bit of Chopin, and also makes liberal use of a capella voices, in the manner of traditional Acadian storytelling ballads. Television actress Cynthia Geary proves an adept singer in these musical narrative passages, and the ensemble cast proves equally adept at lifting the songs (written by Platt) with rich, soaring harmonies.

Arnold's airy, at times nearly diaphanous costumes effortlessly transport us into the world of late 19th century middle-class society, exquisitely lit under the sunny, apricot skies of Healy's lighting effects, all of which play marvelously on Carter's spare, imaginatively rendered set. It's an impressionistic rendering, but one that allows the currents of Chace's script to flow and meander, like the great bodies of water - the Mississippi and Gulf Stream -- that define this part of the world to a great extent, carrying the audience along with a seemingly lazy, yet ultimately implacable forcefulness to the play's conclusion. As unsettling as that conclusion may be, at the same time, a sense of hopefulness surges beneath it, as Edith is drawn further from the superficial world of ornamentation and materialism toward a higher sense of self-awareness and purpose. Likewise audiences will be carried out of the theatre and into the world, as if on a riptide like that which draws the unwary swimmer ever further out to sea.

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