“That bitch is crazy,” says one witness concerning the titular Miss, and in director Stephen Sachs’ world premiere adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” she certainly is. Although the character of Julie was always damaged and reckless in the original play, it was clear that Strindberg saw her as a tragic figure, ultimately a victim of class warfare. Sachs has altered the setting from 1880s Sweden to 1964 Mississippi and shifted the tone from dispassionate observation of the ambitious white valet Jean to sympathy for African-American chauffeur John; with these changes, it’s almost an entirely different story — an uneven if interesting inversion of Strindberg’s classic work.
On the evening of a midsummer party, John (Chuma Gault) has returned to his employer’s house to pick up Christine (Judith Moreland) and take her out dancing. Before they can leave, their employer’s adult daughter, Julie (Tracy Middendorf), saunters in, giddy and looking for trouble. As the night progresses and Christine eventually goes home, Julie attempts to seduce and toy with John, but things don’t go quite the way she expects.
The talented Middendorf ably conveys Julie’s enjoyment of power and manipulation, but she never quite succeeds at making her sympathetic. Her interpretation of Julie is like a character from a particularly fraught Tennessee Williams play. This is an understandable choice, because Julie undeniably has a flair for the melodramatic, but it overshadows her vulnerabilities and makes her more of a problem for John to deal with than a tragic heroine. Gault is excellent, showing how the desire for Julie and a feeling of empowerment could cause John to put his life at risk, and he commands the stage with a smooth grace. Moreland gets a great deal of humlegit or out of her “voice of reason” role and is thoroughly convincing.
Sachs’ adaptation is ambitious and generally successful, though the overabundance of details about the political climate in 1964 is a bit heavy-handed. His staging is well conceived, from the clever use of a chair to represent the barrier separating young John from Julie to the scattering of table implements all over the floor as a symbol of passion and chaos.
Travis Gale Lewis’ kitchen set is detailed and realistic, from a stuffed fridge to a working sink, and it centers the play wonderfully. Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting sets multiple moods effectively, particularly in a sequence where the lights go out and the characters are caged in shadows and blue light — at first a scene of fear and finally a release of passion.