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Damsel in Distress 

click to enlarge Carie Kawa (top) and Hannah Cabell star in "Jane Eyre" at Bard.
  • Carie Kawa (top) and Hannah Cabell star in "Jane Eyre" at Bard.
Society’s insatiable appetite for melodrama—witness the intrigue surrounding the recent death of Anna Nicole Smith—may go far in explaining the enduring public interest in yet another maiden in distress: Jane Eyre. The put-upon governess of the eponymous 1847 novel by Charlotte Bronte, Eyre navigates a life ripe for reality TV. Among her travails: an orphaned past; unrequited love for her cruel, mysterious master, Edward Rochester; and a creeping dread about a secret locked away in her employer’s attic.
Adapted into numerous films and television productions, "Jane Eyre" became an acclaimed stage play when it was published in 1997 by Polly Teale and later performed in England and America. It arrives on April 18 at Bard College in a production by The Acting Company, the celebrated touring troupe cofounded by John Houseman and whose alumni include Patti LuPone, Frances Conroy, Jeffrey Wright, and Rainn Wilson.
Director Davis McCallum—previously at Bard with a stage version of Henry James’s "The Turn of the Screw"—admitted the numerous challenges of transferring a sprawling classic to the stage. First, one must resist the temptation to compete with cinema’s multi-million-dollar costume dramas. “When you’re adapting a piece of literature that has a grand novelistic scope,” he said, “you have to be creative in using the vocabulary of live theater.”
The recreation of Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s menacing home, was downsized for the stage. Not only does this help the show escape horror-film clichés, but the minimalist set allows for easy striking, an important consideration since this company is likely to perform five times per week in different venues.
Like the novel, Teale’s play lumbers under the burden of hand-wringing amid dark, stormy nights. “There is something operatic about the emotional life of Jane Eyre that is thrilling to me,” McCallum says. However, he skirts the tempting edges of wretched excess, opting for a cool, abstract modernity. For instance, the scenery is “more psychological and more theatrical and less realistic.” An over-sized lightbox showcases the forbidding sky of a Corot painting. A cellist, the play’s lone musician, offers interludes that echo the ever-present woe.
“I don’t think there’s a whiff of camp in the production,” McCallum says. “We steered clear of that trap.”
Ominously, a huge matte-gray box is wheeled back and forth throughout the production. It symbolizes not only the attic, which contains a dire mystery, but also Eyre’s psychological imprisonment. The mistreated governess, McCallum said, clearly wrestled with her own out-sized passions and struggled against the corset of social convention.
McCallum’s decidedly feminist take on the story springs from a landmark 1979 book of literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
“Inside Jane Eyre is a woman—another woman, passionate and wild—so she has to keep her locked up inside,” McCallum suggests. But he also feels in the story Eyre’s renegade persona finally, triumphantly emerges. “I see Jane Eyre as a story of containment and release,” he says.
The Acting Company performs “Jane Eyre” on April 18 at 7pm at the Sosnoff Theater at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. (845) 758-7900; www.fishercenter.bard.edu.

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