As I left the theater after a marathon of almost three hours trapped within the walls of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” I heard a few audience members grumbling that it was supposed to be romantic. They had read the book; it read as a romance, not a tragedy. This is, in a nutshell, why I hate the book “Wuthering Heights.” Brontë’s work was taken as a love story when it’s a more complex narrative about trauma. For over 150 years, this story, like “Phantom of the Opera,” has been thrown around in popular culture as if it were a love for the ages between Catherine and Heathcliff. In reality, Heathcliff is repugnant, Catherine clearly has post-traumatic stress disorder, and ninety-five percent of the characters are insufferable.
All that said, though I will forever loathe the book, this is an inventive and gorgeous retelling.
The story is a labyrinth of Catherines and Lintons, but the plot is fairly simple. Mr. Earnshaw adopts young abandoned Heathcliff and brings him into his family with his daughter Catherine and son Hindley. Earnshaw eventually dies, Hindley kicks Heathcliff out of their family home Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Catherine fall in love, and Catherine spends some time with their neighbors, The Lintons. Without spoiling anything, that will get you through the dense start of the show. A half-hour could easily be cut from the runtime, particularly from the slog of the ninety-minute first act, though, to be fair, the source material is dense too.
While quite a few people left at intermission during this Emma Rice adaptation, presented by Wise Children, act two opens with a wink at the show’s departure from the book’s stereotypes. It opens with a song with lyrics like “What did you expect?” and “If you wanted a love story, you should go to Broadway.” This adaptation, brought in from the U.K., is well aware of how devastating the story of “Wuthering Heights” truly is. Through a slew of original songs, mesmerizing choreography, and simplistic setpieces, we are forced to really look at the dysfunction of the Linton and Earnshaw families. There aren’t trappings to distract us.
At the performance I attended, several cast members were replaced with understudies. Although we had a different Catherine (Katy Ellis) and Heathcliff (Ricardo Castro), the cast as a whole was impeccable. As a play with music, the entire ensemble had to be gifted storytellers. Rice’s direction allowed each cast member to play to their individual talents, transforming this story from page to stage. For none is that more true than Georgia Bruce, whose portrayal of both Isabella Linton and Little Linton stole the show with every scene. Bruce’s comedy was exactly the levity this play needed. Frankly, it could do with a bit more self-deprecation, like the first song in act two, and take itself less seriously.
Brontë knew what she was doing when she named her novel “Wuthering Heights.” The winds are a character in themselves throughout this play though the real tempests are the relationships within. If you’re looking for a love story, you’re looking in the wrong place. If you want a thorough examination of trauma, toxic relationships and cycle-breaking, come pay a visit to “Wuthering Heights.” Or if, like me, you detested the book, give this show a try. Perhaps you’ll walk away with a deeper appreciation for Brontë’s work—or at least for the astounding performances.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand, chicagoshakes.com, $59-$106. Now through February 19.