One of the reasons the stage version of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” works better than the film is that Jay Presson Allen’s adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel includes a narrative framework: By reflecting on the story’s politically potent subtext, the work becomes much more than an emotionally charged vehicle for a middle-aged actress.
The larger-than-life character of Jean Brodie, with her powerful and fanciful romanticism, thrust up again student Sandy’s growing subversiveness, is of course the main attraction for both audiences and actors, but move past the play’s delicious theatricality and the heart of Spark’s work becomes a platform for huge – and difficult – questions affecting the very core of education and social structure.
Even though much of the story is set in the 1930s, Sandy’s development presages much of the conflict that drove the ’60s student revolution and then left its scars on many participants. Sacrificed to an idealized version of truth and beauty that cannot withstand the reality of life’s uglier side (portrayed in the play through the death of a student as a result of Brodie’s misguided notions), Sandy ends up embracing the sheltered existence of the convent – a life where dogma and obediencerule.
That all this is couched within the context of Brodie’s admiration of fascist Italy, and given that her building of a creme de la creme within the school mirrors Mussolini and Hitler’s quest for Aryan purity, there is a layer of particular unease that keeps the play eternally fascinating.
Director Janet Wright and the cast have understood this and created a psychological subtext that keeps the show simmering with unresolved turmoil. Against Douglas Paraschuk’s set of brick and iron gates, and a cyc that alternates from warm to cold washes, Lally Cadeau’s Brodie is arch, regal and grand, a portrait of disciplined melodrama shot through with moments of stillness at the rare times when the world as it is, rather than as she would like it to be, cuts across her consciousness.
Cara Hunter, as Sandy, is a budding star; her coiled energy, watchful demeanor and gradual revenge are all played with an underlying maturity that is able to give way to the young child, eager for approval.
In the final moments of this production, when a conquered Brodie yells “assassin” with heart-rending anguish at the retreating Sandy’s back, Wright has Hunter tense her shoulders and block her ears as if responding to a physical punch. Silhouetted against a suddenly steel-gray sky at the back of the stage, her slight and rigid body provides a chilling climax. It’s just one of many ways in which Wright has managed to balance the light against dark.
(What a pity, though, that she did not insist on Hunter posing nude in the show’s critical scene with Wayne Best, as Teddy, the second-rate artist who beds Sandy while lusting after Brodie. It’s called for in the text and is needed for the story to achieve its full impact.)
Brian Tree’s performance as the earnest music teacher Mr. Lowther and Patricia Collins’ iron-backed headmistress solidly book-end the sunnier scenes, while Best uses offhand charm to make his conquest. But he is neither cynical enough with Sandy, or passionate enough with Brodie, and his performance has yet to find its full force.
Barbara Fulton as Sister Helena, the former Sandy, makes much of simple exposition. Cloaked in her habit and unable to use her body for expression, she says the world with her face and a voice that rings with painful memories.
There has been much talk about whether this classical fest should be programming Broadway hits as part of its season, but one thing’s certain: If they are to be done at all – even with its minor flaws – this is the way to go about it.