Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

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note: entire contents copyright 1996 by Larry Stark

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

by Jay Presson Allen
Adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark
Produced and Directed by Susan Kosoff

Set Design by Zeynep Bakkal
Lighting Design by Steven Rosen
Costume Design by Jerry DeCarlo & Marian Piro
Production Stage Manager Greg Nash

Jean Brodie............Jane Staab*
Miss MacKay............June Lewin*
Sister Helena.....Susan Gochenour*
Mr. Perry.............Rick Mauran*
Sandy................Jeri Hammond*
Monica.............Mimi Jo Katano*
Gordon Lowther... ..James Kennedy*
Teddy Lloyd........Neil Gustafson*
Jenny...............Robin Eldridge
Mary MacGregor......Jillian Singer
McCready.....Harold R. Hector, Jr.
Miss Campbell.. ...Maura O'Brien
Young Jenny........Jillian Buckley
Young Monica.....Emily Grigg-Saito
Young Sandy............Julie Keefe
Clara..................Nia Murrell
Young Mary............Alix Seifert
Girl Guides, students:
Siri Bird, Anna Bowers, Janelle Dempsey,
Emma Haritos, Aria Pierce, Gina Servello,
Esme' Williams

Reviewing a botched production profits no one. They fail of their own shortcomings, and a responsible reviewer would better spend time and attention on better shows, damning the bad with a withering silence.

But what if a large, healthy, well-respected company with an honored track-record employs eight Equity actors yet only three of them give laudable performances? The surprising failure of Wheelock Family Theatre's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" deserves examination.

Jay Presson Allen's script makes heavy demands on both the company and the audience. Structurally, it would be happier on film than on stage because vast and complicated background details difficult to realize live are called for, including cuts and fades and flash-backs. It crams a dense, subtle, complicated novel into a box and snips off whatever doesn't fit. But it also expects a contemporary audience to remember how famous Benito Mussolini was in 1937, and which side of the Spanish Revolution Franco led. Even worse, the text ripples with ironies and ambiguities that are at the delicate heart of its message.

It's also huge. There are seventeen speaking parts --- some with half a dozen lines in single appearances --- and four major characters must appear first as 8-year-olds and later at sixteen. The Wheelock production adds eight young scene-swellers. Even with an assistant, any director has a huge cast to choreograph and control. In such a massive endeavor, some actors could feel neglected.

Take all those kids. Kids can't play kids on stage. They play what they think actors playing kids might play. The best a director can hope is that they'll do everything exactly as they're told to so it'll look like they're being kids. And that part of this production went without a hitch --- the kids reached the best level of performance that could possibly be expected and were the best part of the show.

But as the ages and the levels of difficulty rise much more is expected of actors, and less was forthcoming. And the Equity members were particularly surprising.

Mimi Jo Katano was asked to play a kid, and obviously did so; her Monica is a fourth-banana teenager, but it worked.

Susan Gouchenour in the thankless role of Sandy-turned-nun and Rick Mauran whose interview of her sparks the whole three-act flash-back, seemed paralyzed at how enormous a rabbit they had to pull out of the few ponderously cryptic lines they had to work with. They opted to say the lines and get out of the way of the real action --- no doubt cursing the playwright for forcing upon them such impossible tasks.

James Kennedy as the innocent bumbler Miss Brodie seduces yet refuses to marry accompanies every line with an entire catalog of ticks and twitches elaborately indicating his state of mind, even though the crispness of their execution and the sensitivity of his readings prove that all that excess physical baggage just gets in the way of what would be obvious without it.

That insistence on being perfectly clear and obvious is what undercuts Neil Gustafson's forceful performance as Jane's rejected ex-lover, giving his intellect and technique no chance to shine. As with all of these actors, the performance and the production make it impossible for any of these characters to be surprised, ever, by anything.

The word for that is melodrama, and it comes by its reputation as a curse honestly.

Jeri Hammond as Miss Brodie's most successful student and eventually her most devastating enemy avoided the trap of egregious indicating. Hers is the pivot-role as the one of her girls Brodie taught so well to think for herself she could see her teacher's self-absorbed, self-deluded lust for power and could act to put a stop to it. The inwardness of her private moments was refreshing, though the production whirling round them never responded in kind.

June Lewin as the headmistress, Brodie's arch-nemesis from the start, had a simple and unchanging role, and yet her refusal of any external tricks focused attention on a searching awareness and inner intelligence that most everyone else could not possess. The doubt at what her Miss MacKay might do next made her a much more imposing and dangerous enemy than any empty histrionics could.

At the heart of this show is a big, complicated one-woman portrait. Miss Jean Brodie's lectures are stream-of-consciousness self-indulgence wherein her opinions and prejudices are stated as fact. She is a meddlesome manipulator oblivious to the consequences of any of her acts who genuinely believes she is teaching --- molding minds and souls --- while she is merely substituting her own unrealistic prejudices for those of the narrow Scottish society around her. Half her monologous lectures are romanticized megalomania, half are inadvertent projection of her own fantasies, and all of her lines are edged with an ingroup irony and deviously subtle intelligence. The action of the show ought to be a gradual realization that the blind adoration of her charges is not simply misplaced, but dangerous, and that realization should come as a surprise.

why then did Jane Staab swagger onstage singing her lines as though she were performing "La traviata" instead of recommending it? She and most of the principals playing with her were at pains every step of the way to make certain there could be no surprises. Again, the word is melodrama.

Perhaps the basis of the problem was the choice of a play thought too complicated to appeal to an audience a huge percentage of which would still be in grade school. Director Susan Kosoff may have thought it best to make everything quickly obvious to even the youngest minds. That could account for the slides, which were helpful in establishing dates, going on to announce "The Locker Room, Later" and then "The Locker Room, even later" in a Brechtian bludgeoning of the obvious, instead of letting the staging speak for itself. This could be why otherwise competent, engaging, experienced actors were behaving as though this were a revival of "The Perils of Pauline".

This least-common-denominator approach means everybody loses.



180 The Riverway, BOSTON
till 23 February

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide