Having dramatized Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities” for Paper Mill audiences with modest success, artistic director Robert Johanson has now ventured into the dark landscape of Bronte country. With “Jane Eyre,” the formula proves to be rich in mystery and romanticism, and abundant with brooding atmosphere. Using scissors and prudent theatrical liberty, Johanson retains the novel’s compelling narrative flow.
With a sprawling cast of 30 players, some doubling in roles, the tale follows the orphaned little Jane (sympathetically acted by Blythe Auffarth) from the cruel indignities of Lowood Institution to her mature years as a tutor-governess. At Thornfield Hall, Jane finds hideous laughter and horrifying screams echoing down from an attic garret and harbors a secret passion for her elusive and imposing employer.
What gives the production its thrust and balance is Michael Anania’s set, a creative network of aspiring facades and gloomy Victorian interiors. The multilevel mansion includes a grand staircase with appropriate chandeliers and candelabras. The Yorkshire estate suffers the ravages of thunderstorms, rain, snow and crackling fire with chilling effect, giving the smoke machine extra duty.
As the narrator and title character, Elizabeth Roby, who is seldom offstage, progresses from a timid but determined governess to a radiant young bride-to-be. With the quiet dignity of a Doulton figurine, the actress firmly links the episodic events with impressive fortitude and authority.
Tom Hewitt essays the proper balance of anguish, abruptness and roguish ardor as the world-weary and disillusioned Edward Rochester.
There are many other sharply defined performances. Glory Crampton as the arch and haughty Blanche Ingram, Natalie Van Kleef as a tragic orphan and John Littlefield as a neurotic clergyman all find their marks.
Particularly outstanding is Mikel Sarah Lambert as the wise and comforting housekeeper, who relates the final episode amid the crumbling ruins of Thornfield Hall. William Ryall as the tyrannical headmaster is gruff enough, but missing is the cold and malevolent steely edge of the late Henry Daniel in the classic 1944 film.
The period costumes are handsome and right, from uniformed orphans to guests at a fancy supper party. Incidental music and a deft lighting design provide a cinematic accent.
Johanson has paced the play with a swift and knowing hand, tying up the story with an unexpected yet satisfactory happy-ending epilogue, delivered after the final curtain call.
Still, the massive production and large cast will present challenges to an afterlife for “Jane Eyre.”