McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann has faced her first encounter with the Bard and come up with a swiftly paced “Romeo and Juliet” graced with the presence of fresh young faces and a Juliet to set one’s heart racing.
The performance of Sarah Drew as Juliet is full of the radiance of youth. Here is a young girl who in the matter of four days experiences infatuation, her first sexual experience, the death of her cousin, a secret marriage, a mocked death and ultimately suicide over the body of her beloved husband. Drew touches all the emotions with a rare, fervent urgency.
She expresses childlike vulnerability, headstrong impertinence and, most of all, the rapture, ecstasy and passion of young love. A senior at the U. of Virginia, Drew actually looks like the right age.
The athletic and spirited Romeo of Jeffrey Carlson is an able partner. This Romeo is given to gymnastic leaps and somersaults. The lovesick boy is invested with an earnest adolescence and quickened impulsive ardor. While the actor’s voice may be a tad thin, Shakespeare’s lyric verse is well spoken, and the embraces are hot-blooded and true.
The balcony scene is beautifully played, accented with the urgency of headstrong, impatient kids in love.
Impetuous and robust, the Mercutio of Remy Auberjonois has the right mocking attitude. In marked contrast to his doomed Tuzenbach in the recent N.J. Shakespeare Festival production of “The Three Sisters,” Auberjonois reveals a rash, impulsive nature. Joe Wilson Jr. is Tybalt, Juliet’s truculent cousin, and with a mere 15 lines, he establishes himself as the pivotal force in the family conflict.
The Nurse of Myra Lucretia Taylor is big-hearted and emotionally warm, less bawdy than is customary. David Cromwell’s Friar Laurence has a nice touch of whimsy, but lacks the bonded affection with his impulsive young lovers and misses the pain and grief of the final desperate moments.
Also effective are Juliet’s concerned parents, acted by Stephen Rowe as a sometimes tipsy, sometimes manipulative father and an icy Mirjana Jokovic as a distant and cool mother. The latter bears a striking parental resemblance to Drew’s Juliet.
Bold, antiseptic scenic design by Neil Patel never overpowers the cast or the play. Donald Holder’s sensitive lighting design delicately illuminates Juliet in the masked ball sequence, the lovers in their wedding bed and the shadowy final encounter in the darkened tomb. When the Montagues and Capulets draw swords, the street fights have a breathless excitement as staged by Charles Conwell. The Renaissance-inspired costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, frame the Capulets in burgundy and cranberry and the Montagues in emerald green.