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A rocky transition for Woolf's `Lighthouse'

The modern classic written in stream of consciousness defies a bold attempt to stage it.

March 02, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — There may be more difficult novels to adapt to the stage -- James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," anyone? -- but Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" is right up there with the most intractable. Scant of dialogue and old-fashioned plot, this classic of modernism defies anyone to spin a play out of its flowing stream of consciousness.

Berkeley Repertory deserves credit for undertaking the project, though the solutions it advances to the problem of materializing Woolf's ardently abstract vision only confirm the obvious: Some art -- the greatest perhaps -- can only be fully appreciated on its own inflexible terms. And this deeply inward work of fiction, a tale composed largely of ruminations not meant to be spoken aloud, looks rather silly gabbing up a storm under the proscenium.

"To the Lighthouse" had its world premiere Wednesday under the direction of Les Waters. With a book by Adele Edling Shank and music by Paul Dresher, the production features video by Jedediah Ike that supplements Annie Smart's elegantly spare mirror-paneled set design.

The starkly contemporary staging clears the deck for Woolf's unique meditation to unfold. Unfortunately, the words, orchestral sound and projected imagery, attractive though they are individually, aren't gracefully coordinated.

A first act of story-theater (marked by a clumsy and over-illustrative brand of acting) gives way to a string quartet interlude in which narrative leaps (the "Time Passes" section of the book) are suggested via a kind of slide show. And then, to one's complete surprise, the final stretch transforms into a quasi-opera, an awkward development that only accentuates the work's patched-together feeling.

"To the Lighthouse" may similarly be divided into three movements, but there's nothing disparate about the style. Woolf's prose exerts a patterning calm on the whole, and her craftsmanship could hardly be more confident or meticulous.

Considered by many to be her most resplendent achievement (along with "Mrs. Dalloway" and the marvelous late flowering of "Between the Acts"), "To the Lighthouse" sets out to articulate the ineffable train of private thoughts of Mrs. Ramsay (Monique Fowler), her insecure philosopher husband (Edmond Genest) and numerous children and guests, all of whom have gathered at the family's shabbily genteel hideaway in the Scottish Hebrides.

Two characters, peculiarly prone to refined and elaborate interior monologues, command most of our attention: the beautiful and enigmatic Mrs. Ramsay, a woman accustomed to being admiringly observed, and her sharp-eyed, unmarried friend Lily Briscoe (Rebecca Watson), an amateur artist typically found agonizing before her easel.

Lily has decided to paint Mrs. Ramsay sitting at the window with her youngest, James (Gabriel Stephens-Siegler performed the role on opening night), a restless lad desperate to sail to the lighthouse in the morning, though the weather doesn't seem to be on his side.

If the first half revolves around a mother trying to protect her boy from the disappointment of not getting to go to the dreamy lighthouse, the second half is about what happens, a decade later, when a young man finally gets his long-abandoned wish.

Woolf's method of free association, flitting from one mind's subjective tumble to the next, is part of her plan to capture the shifting perceptions and emotional repercussions of everyday being. It's not clear whether the finest of actors could pull this off. But Waters' ensemble doesn't seem to be encouraged to proceed in the subtlest of directions. One frequently has the sense of a book being read by a hammy librarian, who has finally found an outlet for her histrionic gifts.

Fowler's Mrs. Ramsay poses more than she lives. The character's quiet profundity (described as a "simplicity" that "fathomed what clever people falsified") is little in evidence. Played in a monumental manner that's calculated to impress, she has become a grand dame whose musings often strike one as embarrassingly arch.

Watson brings just the right querying stare to Lily. She warily regards Mrs. Ramsay's marriage as an example of how women must subordinate their talents and truth for the sake of their husbands. But her beauty is too distracting. Mrs. Ramsay worries that men won't find her friend desirable, but nothing could be more far-fetched. Lily outshines even her fabled loveliness.

Genest brings a forced eccentricity to Mr. Ramsay, the academic who frets incessantly that his books will soon no longer be read. Woolf wasn't inventing a comic type here; she was recalling her own household as a child. But he's too distant a figure for Genest, who rings most authentic in the quieter marital moments when he's not required to manically spin out of control.

As William Bankes, the botanist whom Mrs. Ramsay hopes will propose to Lily, Jarion Monroe conveys an airtight quality of self-possession that fits the widower scientist's secretly sensitive personality.

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