Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Miss Brodie and her special set of four students whom she attempts to mold like an artist working with clay, is the subject of Jay Presson Allen's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Seldom seen, the play has been mounted by Dark & Stormy Productions under the direction of Allison Vincent, who brings it to blazing life in a production that leads one to wonder, "Why has this powerful play been under wraps for so long?" Based on a 1961 novel by Scottish author Muriel Sparks, Allen's stage adaptation arrived in London in 1966 starring Vanessa Redgrave, travelled to Broadway in 1968 with Zoe Caldwell in a Tony-Award winning performance, and was quickly made into the 1969 movie starring Maggie Smith in an Oscar-winning performance. All three actors are, of course, superlative, but it is the character that demands our attention, a person of such compelling energy that we cannot look away as she wreaks havoc. In the current production, Dark & Stormy's Artistic Director Sara Marsh is Jean Brodie, and a virtuosic meeting of bravura performance and spellbinding character again ignites the stage.
Not that we are drawn to admire Miss Brodie. Her divergence away from mathematics, history, and other standard academic fare in favor of expressing her personal opinion as truth, revealing intimacies inappropriate for a teacher to share with students of any age, let alone impressionable twelve-year-olds, and her selection of a handful of "her girls" for highly favored status and attention is irresponsible and narcissistic. Her admiration for strong, decisive leaders leads her to praise Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, romanticizing the latter's Nationalist campaign in the Spanish Civil War. She manipulates two men: Teddy, a married Catholic art instructor with six children with whom she had a brief affair he yearns to resume; and Gordon, a naïve, upstanding choirmaster with whom Brodie embarks on an affair for the sole purpose of stoking the flames of Teddy's unfulfilled desire.
Yes, there is her wish for her students, her girls–and especially her chosen ones–to not settle for easy lives, to pursue all the excellence and experience they can muster and make their marks in the world. Given the era, when most women were expected to marry as well as possible, raise children, and make a home for their husbands, her vision for what her girls will become is remarkable, and would seem to a positive force in their lives. If only she didn't constrain them by insisting on her vision, rather than empowering the girls to seek their own. Brodie demands that they find a cause to which they will dedicate themselves, as she has dedicated herself to them. But here's the rub: unless they fulfill her imagined futures, her rabid dedication is for naught. She cannot cede control and still maintain the notion that she is a woman "in her prime."
If Marsh's performance makes this a must-see production (and it does), hers is surrounded by top notch performances including those of students at the University of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, in a fledgling relationship between Dark & Stormy and the university. This includes the four girls who form Ms. Brodie's set: Shayla Courteau as Sandy, Jennifer Donovan as Jenny, Alice Wenzlow as Monica, and Cece Roth as Mary MacGregor. All four are outstanding, each persuasively establishing her own persona. Shayla Courteau succeeds especially well as Sandy, a role that calls for slowly building a degree of intensity and outrage, and ultimately has the most complicated relationship with her would-be mentor.
Peter Christian Hansen is superb as Teddy Lloyd, the married art teacher who wishes he had a choice of who to love, so that he could love his wife instead of Jean Brodie. Alex Galick is equally excellent as the less worldly Gordon Lowther, who wants a simple, married life that Jean Brodie will not abide. Katie Willer offers an assured portrayal of the school's headmistress, Miss MacKay, whom Miss Brodie sees as her adversary, for indeed Miss MacKay delivers increasingly severe warnings to the free-wheeling teacher. Miss Brodie is undeterred. She has tenure, for one thing, and she is smart enough to outwit Miss MacKay's arguments against her. She insists to her girls, with typical dramatic hyperbole, that the only way she will be forced to leave the school is to be assassinated.
A framing device begins and ends the play with a young reporter from West Virginia, come to Edinburgh to interview Sister Helena, a Catholic nun who has written a bestseller garnering much attention, and which leads the sister to discuss the person who had the greatest influenced upon her, a teacher named Miss Jean Brodie. Emily Grodzik, as Sister Helena, and Jackson Whitman, as the reporter, both fare well in these roles which, though small, serve as a meaningful lens through which to assess the effect of a teacher such as Jean Brodie on the lives of their students.
Vincent has staged the play with onrushing tension, building a feeling of suspense and uncertainty that keeps the audience continuously engrossed. During the brief set changes (the modest but effective set is by Rick Polenek, four classic columns standing upright at the rear of the thrust stage signifying the archly traditional milieu Brodie aims to dislodge) bells chime, keeping us attuned even then to the narrative thrust before us. I found the Scottish accents, abetted by dialect coach Keely Wolter, a bit hard to grasp for the first fifteen minutes or so, but they settled into their rhythms and tones, adding greatly to the authenticity of time and place.
Mary Shabatura's lighting design adds immeasurably, shifting mood and drawing our focus to each point of significance as the story unspools. Marsh has designed the costumes, with staid school uniforms for the students, all Highland plaid skirts and black patent leather shoes, costumes for the two primary male characters that aptly distinguish their natures from one another, and for Jean Brodie, just enough splash of color–a bright scarf, a colorful floral trim at the hem of her skirt, shiny dangling earrings–to make her protest against the school's conservatism.
The play is laden with thoughts of consequence. There are conversations about the strictures and structures of the church, about pedagogy, about art, about the rise of fascism, about loyalty and dedication. If some of its themes are less developed than others, the playwright has certainly given us enough to consider as we leave the theater. The conversations are likely, as was mine, to veer between stimulation over the bold ideas within the play and the questions it asks, and exclamations of praise for the production, the performances, and especially for Sara Marsh's portrayal of Miss Jean Brodie. We are on the verge of a new theatre season, and as with last year's God of Carnage, Dark & Stormy Productions has once again started things off with a show that sets a high bar for all that will follow. Their work, as Miss Brodie would say, remains "the crème de la crème."
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie runs through September 17, 2023, at the Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-401-4506 or visit www.darkstormy.org.
Playwright: Jay Presson Allen, adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark; Director: Allison Vincent; Scenic and Props Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Sara Marsh; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Makeup: Crist Ballas; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight and Intimacy Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Ashley Roper; Producer: Sara Marsh
Cast: Shayla Courteau (Sandy), Jennifer Donovan (Jenny), Alex Galick (Gordan Lowther), Emily Grodzik (Sister Helena), Peter Christian Hansen (Teddy Lloyd), Kat Haugan (Voiceovers), Sara Marsh (Jean Brodie), Cece Roth (Mary MacGregor), Alice Wenzlow (Monica), Jackson Whitman (Mr. Perry), Katie Willer (Miss MacKay). .