Early in “Villette,” a new play based on Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, protagonist Lucy Snowe tells us that this is no “fairy tale.” There will be no mad wives in the attic, she warns—a sly allusion to Bronte’s most famous book “Jane Eyre.”
There are also no fires and abusive schoolmasters in “Villette,” a quieter, more interior novel than “Jane Eyre.” It is the story of a young, intelligent woman who becomes a teacher at a French school, and struggles with both romance and her place in the world. She loves, fears and dares to have ambitions beyond marriage. Based on Brontë’s own experience teaching in Brussels, some consider it to be better than “Jane Eyre,” more sophisticated, with more complex characters. I’m a fan of both books.
Unfortunately, without a mad wife and other showy elements, “Villette” is more difficult to dramatize. The Lookingglass version is beautifully acted and staged, under the direction of ensemble member Tracy Walsh. But at times, it feels more like a book than a play.
Mi Kang as Lucy narrates a lot of the plot, speaking directly to the audience. With her wonderfully mobile face, Kang is able to convey Lucy’s sense of humor, along with her feelings of hurt and longing. Artistic Associate Sara Gmitter’s script is witty and brings out Brontë’s sharp observations about the narrow choices faced by Victorian women. But some parts of Lucy’s story would have been better shown, in dialogue or action, rather than explained. In the book, Lucy can be fierce—she locks a student in a closet for acting up—and goes to confession though she hates Catholicism. In the play, she mostly talks.
The wordiness of the play is reflected in the stage design by Yu Shibagaki—rooms and scenes are revealed using sliding panels decorated with Brontë’s handwriting. The stage furniture is minimal—a narrow bed, an armoire, an armchair, a bookshelf. As the feelings of the characters deepen, more of the back of the stage is revealed, with spring flowers and a wonderful display of hanging, illuminated glass bottles to represent the stars.
Lucy befriends a coquettish student named Ginevra Fanshawe, played with great fun by Mo Shipley. In silk gowns and bouncy ringlets, Ginevra presents a contrast to the plainly dressed Lucy, like a peacock beside a dove. The interplay between the two actresses is terrific, from the time they meet on a ship crossing the channel, swaying to and fro with imaginary waves. Lucy may tire of Ginevra’s nonsense, but the audience never does.
Lucy has two romantic interests—the handsome but bland and fickle Graham (Ronald Román-Meléndez) and a fellow teacher named Paul Emanuel (Debo Balogun). Prickly and eccentric, Paul sees in Lucy a fiery spirit she can’t see in herself. In a red-velvet tasseled cap and spectacles, Balogun plays him with droll charisma, though he’s an awful prude over Lucy looking at a nude woman in a painting. A lot of what we learn about him is through Lucy’s narration. There are gaps, and we have to make imaginative leaps to fully understand his appeal.
Also excellent are Renée Lockett as Graham’s mother, a joyful woman comfortable in her own skin, who gives Ginevra a look that would wilt all her flounces if she’d only been paying attention. Helen Joo Lee as Madame Beck, the school’s owner, is icy and intimidating as a woman who has made her own way in a man’s world.
Based on a novel more people should read, “Villette” is a show worth seeing. To paraphrase Elvis, a little less explanation and a little more action would have made it better.
“Villette” at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 North Michigan, lookingglasstheatre.org, Through April 23