The story of Jane Eyre has captivated generations of people. First published as a novel in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte, under the pen name Currer Bell, it has been adapted into multiple films, tv mini-series, and theatrical performances including a musical. ‘Young Jane Eyre,’ adapted by Marisha Chamberlain, and directed by Krista M. Schwarting, which opened last weekend at Anchorage Community Theatre, focuses on the first part of Jane’s life. This adaptation explores the formative years of this beloved character.
The team at ACT seldom has a misstep when it comes to the design side of theatre, and this show is no exception. A wonderful set design by Brian Saylor and dressing by Marcia Varady greet the audience. With very few set pieces that move, lighting design by Dean Brady is an important part of the story that moves indoors and outdoors throughout the show, as well as moving from the Reed home to Lowood Orphanage. Quick and smart set changes, combined with Brady’s light design, and the choices of color made these transitions seamless and never interrupted the flow of the show.
As director, Schwarting has a lot to be proud of with this play. The show has 26 characters portrayed by 21 actors. The majority of these actors are 17 or younger. Having a cast this large in a theatre that, like most community theatre spaces, is smaller can be a challenge. At no time during the 90 minute production did the stage ever feel crowded, and the blocking allowed for perfect viewing of each and every actor on stage.
Schwarting also did an expert job casting the show. Every character portrayed stood out and was memorable. Even those that only had a few lines added so much to this tale of overcoming adversity and being true to yourself.
Hannah Hickenlooper as the title character is an absolute joy. The novel was one of the first books that had a first person child narrative. Hickenlooper seems to be inspired by this fact, and is brilliant in her role as she tells the entire story. The emotions of each scene are clearly on her face when she is not speaking, yet she still manages to never pull focus from her cast mates. You will find yourself rooting for her, hurting with her, and being inspired by her bravery and character. This is the first lead role that she has ever gotten and one that she says has meant a lot to her. “The first nine chapters are so pivotal. They really taught me, you can stand up for other people, and not be afraid, it will shape you, and it shapes the people you are able to surround yourself with.”
Equally as engaging are the characters Helen Burns and Mary Ann Wilson, played by Bronwyn Embree and Kinley Norman respectively. These two support Jane in her journey in their own special ways, and the chemistry and bond between all of the actors was apparent and felt natural.
There are so many villains in this, the early story of Jane Eyre’s life: from wicked and abusive family members, to cruel and arrogant staff members of the Lowood Orphanage and school. The adults and children that play these roles complement each other perfectly. Roles that could easily become cartoonish or saccharine remain grounded and realistic. An actor that portrays a villain well will have an audience dislike them by the end of the show, and I found myself getting angry with Reverend Brocklehurst played by Todd Sherwood, and the teachers at the orphanage, and with the actors portraying Jane’s cousins and aunt. These feelings were balanced nicely by affection showered by the actors portraying the mother figures that Jane has as she grows up, Bessie Turbie played by Jane Hendrickson Baird and Miss Temple played by Becky Sheridan.
I appreciated the choice to not have the actors speak in accents even though the play is set in 1820’s England and features characters from Scotland and other areas. Instead, each spoke their lines with perfect diction and projected loudly. For younger actors this ability is impressive, especially when feels like that is how they always speak.
This show would be appropriate for any audience that would like to attend. The subject matter is more than timely for the current political climate. The issues that the children have to deal with, such as bullying, loneliness, rumors, and more, will ring true with younger audience members and perhaps some older attendees as well.