Your passage to India begins even before you enter the theater. In the lobby of the Theatre Building, where Martin Sherman’s stage adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel “A Passage to India” is making its Midwest debut courtesy of Vitalist Theatre, director Elizabeth Carlin-Metz and her talented design team have already worked some wonders. An impressive image of the Taj Mahal; a real-working fountain; stringed pearls and draped fabrics; incense sticks and peacock-feather fans; photos of dirt roads and the poor. In sum, the sprawling, exotic and colorful sights and sounds of the Indian subcontinent are richly evoked. The journey continues inside the auditorium. With little more than gray swaths of fabric nimble actors wondrously replicate a swaying and lumbering elephant. Three central set pieces—approximating antique chest drawers on wheels—roll around like cars bustling through busy streets or interlock in various configurations to create a mysterious journey through labyrinthine caves. Forget late British director David Lean’s 1984 “lean” celluloid treatment of Forester’s novel (likened by one colleague as the cinematic equivalent of a dumb blonde—boring but beautiful to behold), Carlin-Metz’s imaginative staging keeps the story moving right along—scenes melt into one another and slow-motion technique is effectively employed—while Sherman brings out its soul. So while Forester’s larger concerns concerning British colonialism of India and the ensuing cultural collisions of the social, moral and spiritual kind remain intact, Sherman makes explicit what Forester and Lean tackled implicitly: the sexual awakening of a plain-Jane British woman and the homoerotic tension between an English schoolmaster and a Muslim doctor. If the former has been well-served, it’s disappointing that the latter suffers from a lack of chemistry between the two male actors and director Carlin-Metz’s tentative approach to that narrative thread. It’s a shame since once Sherman concludes his heroine’s story a good deal of the second act remains focused on theirs. But this is my only reservation for a well-done production that demolishes the myth that sprawling novels cannot be adapted into stirring drama. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, (773)327-5252. This production is now closed.