Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Wuthering Heights
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by Christine M. Malcom

Liam Tamne (center), Jordan Laviniere, Stephanie Elstob
and Ricardo Castro

Photo by Muriel Steinke, courtesy of Berkeley Repertory Theatre
As part of its WorldStage Series, Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hosting the UK-based Wise Children's Wuthering Heights in its Yard theater. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, Wise Children's artistic director, the show translates Emily Brontë's jagged, brooding novel into movement, sound, and pure emotion. Despite practical and logistical challenges on opening night, as well as some minor narrative rough edges inherent in the adaptation, the production is stirring, well-executed, and thought provoking.

Rice's adaptation is, for the most part, simply a streamlined version of Brontë's story. It opens with Lockwood's arrival as the tenant at Thrushcross Grange, then casts its gaze back in time to untangle the history of the grim cast of characters he enounters. Rice's major change is the elimination of Nelly Dean, or rather her transformation into The Moors themselves, played by a number of actors who propel the story through dance, song, movement of the pieces of the set, and attempts to advise characters, as well as emotionally decode them along the way.

The device might sound hokey on paper, and it's easy to see how it could become intrusive or heavy handed under the wrong director, but here, it tempers the story's high, gothic passion with humor and compassion. It also serves the quite practical purpose of reminding the audience of the where, when, and who of a narrative in which a handful of names are recycled and time and place can be difficult to keep track of.

Vicki Mortimer's set design lifts the tension between the elemental and the civilized from the page, such that Wuthering Heights and the Grange are characters, too. The upstage wall is a giant screen on which a changeable sky is projected, as well as occasional text, suggesting the credits of a black-and-white movie. The band sits upstage left, whereas upstage right is a precarious-seeming collection of ladders that lends a hint of topography to the scene.

Around the perimeter of the stage are a dozen or so wooden chairs where the actors playing The Moors and other minor characters sit, occasionally handing off items to others on stage. The houses themselves are represented by nothing more than two flats–one a patchwork collection of doors and the other a similar jumble of frosted windows–that The Moors wheel quickly on to the stage and just as quickly spin around to take the scene from exterior to interior. Inside, rooms are typically suggested by a pair of chairs, once again on wheels, each of which is set beneath a kind of nest of more mismatched wooden chairs that have been turned upside down and lashed together. This create that uneasy impression of a barricade, but also the weight of the interior world threatening to crash in on the characters.

Mortimer's costumes use similar techniques to convey the battle between nature and civilization. For The Moors, she uses a baseline of dark, short-sleeved shirts, work trousers held up with braces, and patchwork bustles that trail behind them like the windswept landscape. Catherine and Heathcliff, as children and adolescents, wear trailing garments that suggest night clothes paired haphazardly with sweaters and jackets. Later, their cruelty to one another wraps them in painfully proper clothing. Edgar and Isabella, as well as Dr. Kenney and, later, Little Linton, look like dolls in their comically tidy, fashionable clothing.

In terms of the staging, Rice's direction is crisp and tight enough to look like chaos. Paired with Etta Murfitt's movement direction and choreography, this gets to the heart of Brontë's novel and makes a case for its timelessness. The music (Ian Ross, composer, with music direction by Pat Moran) also supports Rice's vision, although the two instances in which Catherine takes up a hand-held microphone and the scene suggests a music video are somewhat jarring in an otherwise effectively cohesive show.

For the opening night performance, Katy Ellis stepped in for Leah Brotherhood as Catherine. She is compelling as young Catherine, both before and after the transformative brush with comfort and civilization at Thrushcross Grange. The brief experience the audience has with Catherine after her marriage is a bit less effective. Rice, understandably, seems interested in the fact that Catherine's upbringing has left her emotionally and psychologically damaged, but this is a bit rushed.

That may be partly attributable to the fact that Rice, as indicated in her Director's Note, is particularly focused on Heathcliff and his ambiguous racial and social identity. Liam Tamne benefits from that focus in the text and, for the most part, humanizes Heathcliff without downplaying the violent, cruel creature life makes of him.

As the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors, Jordan Laviniere is a wild, joyous presence. Rice's script inserts the character into the story with precise and perfect timing and Laviniere is attuned to every comedic, compassionate beat.

Sam Archer is absolutely wonderful as Lockwood and Edgar Linton. His physicality and gift for comedy evokes Gene Kelly in costume spectacles like The Three Musketeers, and Archer complements that with strong dramatic work in Catherine's death scene.

The same can be said for Georgia Bruce who is delightfully absurd as both Isabella Linton and Little Linton, but who also lets the audience feel the depths of Isabella's agony when Heathcliff rapes her on their wedding night to produce an heir to the Grange.

At the opening night performance, TJ Holmes more than capably supplemented the much-needed humor in the roles of Mr. Earnshaw and Dr. Kenneth, all while also playing cello and accordion.

It's hard not to think of any actor as being saddled with the characters of Hindley and Hareton, but Tama Phethean injects humanity into both. Even through the coarse, drunken stupor, Phethean believably conveys Hindley's erratic but sincere love for Frances and his devastation at her death in childbirth. As Hareton, he elevates what feels in the novel like a plot device in making the audience believe his devotion to young Cathy. Eleanor Sutton plays opposite Phethean in both roles, and the two deserve a great deal of credit for fleshing out play's emotional world with those two relationships.

Wuthering Heights runs through February 19, 2023, at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please call 312-595-5600 or visit