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A True 'Eyre'

Theater | STAGE REVIEW

Despite some faults, adaptation of the gothic romance novel has a glowing chemistry.

December 25, 1997|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Believers in true romance, where the only sparring is verbal, will not want to miss Knightsbridge Theatre's version of "Jane Eyre." Wendy Obstler and Chuck McCollum give powerful performances as the leads of this Charlotte Bronte classic.

Tia Odiam's adaptation of the mother of all gothic romance novels has some rough spots, and her staging doesn't always flow nicely. But the sheer chemistry between Obstler and McCollum and the joyous humor Odiam infuses into the proceedings make this production worth seeing despite its faults.

People unfamiliar with the story may be puzzled at some scenes. Odiam skips all the boring background chapters of Jane's stifling childhood by compressing them into a short, impressionistic voice-over. In the second half, the brief fire-setting scene in Jane's room may be totally incomprehensible--both contextually and schematically. Some of the scene changes are lengthier than this dialogue-free minute.

The scene changes are noisy and awkward, interrupting the flow. As director, Odiam clumsily introduces characters via set changes before they enter the story. Amy Showalter, as Blanche Ingram, is first seen as a furniture-moving extra in costume before Blanche's first scene.

Those glitches aside, the central performances redeem most of the evening. Obstler's portrayal of Jane is both passionate and intelligent. Mindful of her position, but not always her mouth, this Jane is uncompromisingly plain. It's not just poverty and unhappiness that makes her so. Yet as she grows confident in her love, she glows with an inner light.

McCollum's Rochester is less gloomy and brooding than usual. Here Jane sees him as threatening because of her repressed sexuality, but in fact he's a charming man with a mischievous eye.

Sharply in contrast to McCollum is Tom Chick's St. John Rivers. Chick's humorless man is unwittingly pompous and manipulative in his moral rectitude--a far greater threat to our heroine than death or marriage to a much older man.

Most crucially, when Obstler's Jane matches wits with these men, sparks fly. There is no doubt that this Jane is their mental equal. Better yet, Rochester's toying with Jane's affection might be interpreted as cruel, but under Odiam's direction, these verbal matches have a teasing, affectionate air.

Although Jane is a governess, her young charge Adele is never seen. Fair enough--with one brief and somewhat unnecessary scene of female frontal nudity, this is hardly family fare.

BE THERE

"Jane Eyre," Knightsbridge Theatre, Braley Building, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Saturdays, 5 p.m.; Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 8. $15. (626) 440-0821. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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