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

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"

By Jay Presson Allen
Adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark
Directed by Candace Hopkins

Scenic Design by Catherine Hetmansky, Gail DeBiak
Lighting Design by Heidi Hinkel
Costumer Sherilyn Levy
Sound Design by Jerome Goldstein
Props Manager Kate Huff
Producer Laura Kandziolka
Stage Manager Sarah Kary

Sister Helena.................Hilary Fabre
Mr. Perry.......................Rob O'Hara
Jean Brodie....................Janet Ferreri
Sandy..........................Nora Williams
Jenny.........................Ashley Williams
Monica........................Erica J. Fasano
Mary MacGregor...Kayla Shaughnessy
Miss Mackay................Kit Seidenberg
Gordon Lowther...........Paul Campbell
Teddy Lloyd..............Will MacDonald

Schoolgirls, Girl Guides
Madeleine Abramowitz, Rose Frank, Molly Goodkind, Dominique Marro, Marta Rymer, Kristine Sullivan

I must have seen the Maggie Smith movie before I read the book by Muriel Spark --- a favorite among modern English woman novelists --- so Jay Presson Allen's huge, intensely cinematic stage adaptation came as a bad third. But Director Candace Hopkins has redeemed this script, first by accepting its film-style head on, and second by emphasizing the operatic style of Jean Brodie herself. So the Footlight Club production of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" works in ways even the movie doesn't.

Hopkins has functioned as an auteur film-director would --- choosing moments to underline, so the play has a shape, and even "close-ups"! That's obvious in scenes when the teacher Jean Brodie addresses her class directly as "little gells" and each one of the ten identically-uniformed students reacts, intensely and uniquely, to what they hear. Brodie has her favorites --- her "set" --- but they rise up out of a realistic mass of believable kids who have individual "close-ups" when, for an instant, hers is the only noticeable reaction. In that sense, the six un-named students swelling the scene become the real stars of the show.

The playwright comes at the heroine from two --- well, two and a half perspectives: the students, particularly the four members of "the Brodie set" see her as a larger than life heroine, while the headmistress and fellow teachers find her a prideful, arrogant, self-willed non-conformist. In both mirrors, the possibilities of sex serve as a subtext. Then there's an almost irrelevant afterthought from a framing-device --- an interview with one of those Brodie girls in Her prime as a mature author looking back on what becomes the play itself.

Janet Ferreri who is Jean Brodie brings to the role a healthy experience in musicals that adds to this portrait. Brodie's flamboyant teaching style emphasizes paintings, opera, and an unashamed admiration of Benito Mussolini and Generalissimo Franco and even Adolph Hitler (the play's period is the entire 1930's) over maths or history --- so it's no wonder her paranoid suspicions are real. They creep into her rambling classroom lectures, where she vows never to resign unless "assassinated". Here, and in her ringing self-defenses in the office of her nemesis the headmistress (Kit Seidenberg), the director ignores realism and has her direct these arias directly to the audience in grand Italian opera style.

Her "gells" are all full of adolescent heroine-worship and raucous misunderstanding, identifying with their mentor in melodramatic fantasies --- but Brodie forces on each of her set aspects of her own personality: Monica (Jessica Morrill) is instinct and impulse; Jenny (Erica Fasano) "the pretty one"; Mary (Kayla Shaughnessy) the political heroine; and Sandy (Nora Williams) the quiet, insightful "spy" who gradually sees Brodie as she really is. Brodie is wrong about each one, though, just as they are wrong about her.

The men in her life are both fellow faculty-members --- a fact that a Scottish girls' private school in 1931 condemns when it cannot be ignored. The two are total opposites. Paul Campbell's singing teacher is a timid and gullible target of opportunity, a conformist church-organist bachelor interested more in marriage than intrigue. He stands in droll contrast to Will MacDonald's painting teacher --- a married Catholic with five children infatuated with Brodie, despite his clear-eyed awareness of her faults.

The design team of Catherine Hetmansky and Gail DeBiak wrestle with a cinematic script that demands more than half a dozen specific scenes, some of them only a few lines long. They use the stage in two levels, an apron a step down, and space beyond the wings of the stage entirely, with Heidi Hinkel's lights moving the action from place to place while Kate Huff's stage crew trundle a blackboard on and off in the blackouts.

This is a huge machine of a show, using every element of the Footlight Club's long theatrical experience to the fullest and at its best. Miss Jean Brodie's world as well as her personality get intriguingly explored, warts and all --- in precise detail. All its parts are polished, and the ensemble work flows easily from close-up to establishing-shot to intimate dialogue to flash-forward until the complicated portrait is complete. It makes me regret "loaning" my copy of Muriel Spark's book to a (former!) friend!


"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (31 May - 15 June)
Eliot Hall, 7a Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN MA
1(617) 524-3200

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