A popular and critical success when it was first published in 1847, Jane Eyre nonetheless met with severe criticism.
Charlotte Bronte's novel was called "anti-Christian" and "a "personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit." Its most famous critic, Elizabeth Rigby, alleged that Jane was a flawed character and it was wrong to make such a person interesting.
Hannah Cabell, who plays the title character in a production of Jane Eyre that comes to the Valentine Theatre tomorrow has a different point of view.
"It also has been labeled one of the first pieces of feminist literature, which I wouldn't disagree with, but I do think that overall it's more of a human story that hopefully appeals to everyone. And it seems to me that it would. It's about a person's journey and personal growth," she said in a telephone interview from Holland, Mich., where the show was being presented last week.
In the story, young Jane suffers an abusive childhood at the hands of relatives with whom she is sent to live after her parents die. Her aunt, in particular, resorts to mental cruelty to tame the rebelliousness and passions in the girl. When she fails, she sends Jane to a charity boarding school, where the headmaster continues the abuse of his charges, justifying it by saying they need to learn humility.
Knowing that she must make her own way in the world, Jane learns to control her impulses and repress her passion. Leaving school, she takes a job as a governess to a 10-year-old girl at an estate named Thornfield.
The estate is owned by Edward Rochester, a taciturn man whom Jane grows to love. Rochester returns that love, but there are secrets at Thornfield that put its inhabitants in danger.
The play's tone is dark, but Cabell urges audiences to pay attention.
"When we were rehearsing I was really struck by how much wit and humor there is in the book. Charlotte Bronte is a very witty writer and puts in little quips and asides, but you have to being paying attention to catch them. It really makes doing the play very fun, because it does sort of alleviate the [overall] dramatic nature."
This version of Jane Eyre was adapted in 1997 by Polly Teale for the British company Shared Experience, which presented six shows in New York in 2000. Cabell is starring in the first American tour of Teale's adaptation, presented by the Acting Company, the New York City-based professional touring company founded in 1972 by John Houseman. Acting Company alumni include Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Keith David, Lorraine Toussaint, David Ogden Stiers, and Frances Conroy.
Although Bronte's novel is more than 150 years old, Cabell said the adaptation didn't have to change much to appeal to modern audiences. "I think the elements were already there," she said, and Teale just played on them.
"Also, the direction is very interesting. I think it keeps the audiences engaged. Davis [McCallum], the director, is excellent in keeping the play moving on stage and really engaging the audience."
The book spans many locations and time periods, and Cabell said the crew struggled with the set changes. In the end, McCallum decided on a simple set and uses costumes, lighting, and music to suggest time and place, allowing the viewers' imaginations to supply the rest.
"It's really imaginative and beautiful and moves very quickly, so I think even children as young as 10 will enjoy it," Cabell said.
The Acting Company presents "Jane Eyre" at 8 p.m. tomorrow in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $36 to $53. Information: 491-242-2787.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org