Jane Eyre hasn’t felt this fresh since the 1840s

EVANSTON, IL — The weather was cold with spitting rain and a swirling wind that no umbrella could fight. But as I crossed the parking lot on campus at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, a woman walking next to me gleefully reminded me to look at the lake. Even on this terrible day, Evanston’s rocky shore and the gray, ominous waters of Lake Michigan looked magnificent. It felt like how a wintery day on the uplands of Derbyshire must have been for Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s famous character, as captured in the opening sentences of her 1847 novel:

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been watering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner … the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.”

I needn’t remind you that there are countless adaptations of this story, on film and on stage. Searching Netflix, I found at least 12 options to chose from, more if you’re willing to pay for a rental on Amazon Prime but I admit I’ve mostly stayed away, wondering what Jane Eyre has to offer in the modern age.

… Says the woman who quietly, hypocritically, obsesses over Jane Austen’s canon. Silly me.

Polly Teale’s adaptation, performed by Northwestern University students through tomorrow in the Josephine Louis Theater, is a fresh re-imagination, unlocking some of the story’s contemporary takeaways while remaining true to the Victorian setting.

The student cast of Jane Eyre, running through Nov. 11 at the Josephine Louis Theater | photo by Justin Barbin

Period costumes occasionally hide the eight actors’ bare feet, each of whom — except for Caroline Chu as Jane and Lucette Panush playing a bewitching Bertha Mason — switch roles as the story progresses from Jane’s childhood home with her wretched aunt and cousins, to the wretched Lowood school, to her post as governess of Thornfield Hall, where she meets her true love, Mr. Rochester.

I got kind of stuck on the bare feet, clearly a deliberate choice by costumer Raquel Adorno which led me to think there was something more than meet’s the eye about this interpretation of Jane Eyre. Was it an attempt to “strip down,” the story, so to speak, or unearth its allegorical underbelly?

Maybe. The swapping of characters leaves a residue from the ones each actor played before. Initially one of “the cousins,” Saidie Stone becomes Jane’s trusted friend Helen at Lowood, and then her charge, Adele. Amara Leonard does the most shape shifting, beginning as Bessie and playing everything from a humorless Alice Fairfax at Thornfield to the self-absorbed Blanche Ingram and one of St. John’s pious, (though not humorless) sisters.

In the opening scenes, Panush appears as the inner psyche of Jane, a reminder that Jane’s virtue did not come without suffering. Panush is on stage nearly the entire play, observing the action from a raised platform hoisted above stage. She is captivatingly mad the whole time, a blend of Jane’s inner demons and Bertha, chained in the upper floor of Thornfield. The idea, for me, is that Jane and Bertha are not so different, after all.

In fact, the whole thing lives in a sort of in between space, half way between fantasy and reality, creatively harnessing the supernatural elements which anchor Bronte’s novel. Jane Eyre is understandably remembered as a love story; more so, it’s a lesson in religiosity, inviting us to question personal ontologies and moral compasses.

The actors carry a lot of weight, here, not only in playing multiple roles, but by filling in gaps left by a deliberately sparse scenic design (by Scott Penner); a mop and bellows become Mr. Rochester’s dog and horse, for example. And lighting designer Anthony Forchielli casts ominous shadows of the walls, frequently created by having actors move a pair of antique-looking Fresnels about the stage.

Though not a direct comment on contemporary life, Teale’s adaptation and this whole team’s effort bringing it to life tug on current events, in which every American is doing a bit of self-reflection about truth, civility and morality. It is perhaps a coincidence that it felt really right to revisit Jane Eyre now, and yet returning to my dog-eared copy of the novel, I couldn’t help but find a modern parallel in the Preface to the second edition, penned by Currer Bell, Brontë’s nom de plume:

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed; they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them; they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is — I repeat it — a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them. …

There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital — a mien as dauntless and as daring. …

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day — as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him.”

Jane Eyre runs tonight at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern University, 20 Circle Arts Drive in Evanston. Tickets are $6-25, available on the  Wirtz Center website, by phone at 847-491-7282, or in person at the box office.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.