The naive rubs up against the sophisticated in “After Mrs. Rochester,” and the result is an aesthetic draw likely to move some spectators (primarily women, I would imagine) to tears even as it leaves others stone cold. Committed and impassioned to a fault, writer-director Polly Teale’s bioplay of “Wide Sargasso Sea” author Jean Rhys (1890-1979) could well herald the arrival of a new theatrical genre, the chick-play, to go with the chick flicks proliferating on both sides of the pond. If this sounds vaguely patronizing, that’s only because the production contains enough to hold the attention — Madeleine Potter’s tremendous performance as Young Jean, primarily — to make one regret those long passages when an evening steeped in literature stoops toward the overripe: Early plaudits for a previous run notwithstanding (the play was acclaimed in April at the Lyric Hammersmith before hitting the West End in July), this is undoubtedly the fruitiest play of the year so far, if nowhere near the best.
The excess comes as something of a surprise from Teale and colleague Nancy Meckler’s Shared Experience company, which has made a terrific name for itself on stage adaptations of novels (“The Mill on the Floss,” “A Passage to India”), all the while adopting a style of physical theater that is anything but hyperliterary or rarefied. In 1999, Teale took her version of “Jane Eyre” on a world tour, and she has returned to Charlotte Bronte once again, just in time to capitalize on the BBC two-parter “In Search of the Brontes,” starring Victoria Hamilton (“Joe Egg”) as Charlotte and airing this month on British TV.
Jean Rhys, we quickly come to learn, loved “Jane Eyre” (at one point, she is seen reading it for the sixth time), and she also had her own psychic equivalent of Bronte’s celebrated “madwoman in the attic,” i.e., the feral, restless Bertha, who — in this play, at least — exists as Jean’s stage shadow.
Bronte devotees will remember her Mrs. Rochester as that novel’s incarcerated wife, who would later fuel the narrative of Rhys’ “Jane Eyre” prequel of sorts, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” for which the novelist-cum-onetime chorus girl remains best known. In Teale’s psychodynamic reading of the later author’s life, the mad Bertha becomes the barely suppressed, febrile alter ego of Jean herself, yet another Caribbean-born woman — Bertha was Jamaican, Jean was born in Dominica — who finds a spiritual soulmate in Bronte’s Creole spouse. And just as the 19th-century Mrs. Rochester was consigned to an attic, so, in her way, is the “crazy daughter” Jean shoved off to England, where it is “as if a curtain had fallen,” enshrouding her in the gloom of which, it is said, she was “enamored to an incredible degree.”
The Jean first encountered could hardly be in greater distress. Confronted with the arrival at her Devon home a day early of her daughter (Amy Marston), Diana Quick’s adult Jean is an elegantly attired figure of dishevelment, a pearl-wearing drunk who seems scarcely more oriented toward children than was Jean’s own stern, shrill momma, seen in ever-longer flashbacks. Teale’s script ends up back where it began en route to showing how Jean — approaching 70 — got to her current state, not to mention the status still to come. (She was 76 in 1966, when “Sargasso Sea” was published.) Referred to by her father as “my little tearaway,” the younger Jean in Potter’s tremulous perf is the opaque, haunted-looking product of a bitter, reproachful household — a child-woman whose mantra, “Who will love me?,” could have been plucked straight from “Jane Eyre.”
Teale is a better director than writer here. Much of the play takes a standard-issue approach to biographical tale-telling (the British boarding school, the brief tenure at RADA, a succession of wrong marriages and worse affairs, including one with Ford Madox Ford). At one point, Ford’s wife turns narrator to keep us apprised of events, while the ever more bestial figure of Sarah Ball’s stage (and unconscionably stagey) Mrs. Rochester offers a running emotive commentary with every desperate snarl and yelp. As the temperature rises, so does the play’s ability to test the patience of viewers, who may be intrigued by leading lady Quick’s unexpected if very real resemblance at different moments to Prunella Scales (the hair!) and Patti LuPone (the lips!).
Amid the intensifying frenzy, co-star Potter — an American actress long resident in London (she was the unkempt neighbor Ruth in the West End version of Richard Nelson’s “Madame Melville”) — charts a very different journey, playing Young Jean from the inside out rather than bombarding us with effects. “What if I don’t want to tell a story?” she asks, the question acquiring an additional subtext given the faux-expressionism spiraling around her. (Chris Davey’s lighting constitutes its own whirling dervish.) And as if in implicit response, this fine actress goes for an immediate and anguished truthfulness that never one seems forced, with Potter on hand to shake “the long miserable mess” of life into truly living theater.