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The Bronte Beat

A new attempt to dramatize the sisters' lives falls short.



Bronte Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

When it comes to "the long parade to the graveyard," Blanche DuBois has nothing on the Brontes, though for the celebrated literary family the parade was exceedingly short: six siblings, all dead before age 40, three of them in the span of less than a year. They grew up in the shadow of their father's Yorkshire church, their front yard a cemetery. Behind them rolled the seemingly endless moors, made famous by Emily's tragic romance Wuthering Heights.

Theirs is a story tailor-made for drama: God on one side, nature on the other, and a singular trio of authoresses—plus their troubled only brother—in between. The sisters quietly defied the conventions of 1840s England (when women were barred from using the the Bronte's local library) by creating two of the most memorable novels in the canon, Charlotte's Jane Eyre, with its fearsome "madwoman in the attic," and Wuthering Heights (which received perhaps the greatest compliment any British novel can earn: a Monty Python parody, in which the doomed lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, proclaim their undying passion for each other via semaphore). Baby Anne usually gets short shrift, but her protofeminist novel about a woman fleeing an abusive marriage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has found its own adherents in recent decades. No wonder the Brontes continue to exert a pull on the popular imagination.

So why does Polly Teale's play, Bronte, in its American premiere with Remy Bumppo, feel so disappointingly stiff and unfocused? It's not because the playwright doesn't know her stuff. Teale, who works with Shared Experience Theatre, a longtime London fringe company, has previously adapted Jane Eyre as well as Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Bertha, the madwoman of Charlotte's opus, has her say. Nor is it because the actors in James Bohnen's staging aren't up to snuff. They commit to the show with dignity and grace, even when their Yorkshire accents falter.

Mostly it seems the subject matter overwhelmed Teale. John O'Keefe, another playwright obsessed with the family, penned a biodrama also entitled Bronte, which I saw in a production at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 2000. Like this one, that play contained a surfeit of detail. But O'Keefe managed to capture the delicate admixture of outsize imagination, longing, and mordant wit at the heart of the sisters' best writing. Teale never achieves a similar distillation.

Teale's Bronte begins with a gambit that doesn't pay off. The actors playing Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (Susan Shunk, Carrie A. Coon, and Rachel Sondag) enter as themselves and ask the audience a series of questions as they put on their period costumes: How did three women who "weren't pretty or fashionable and never had sex," (well, except for Charlotte, who died at 39 from complications of pregnancy) manage to create such indelible, passionate characters? How did they defy the odds of their isolation and early tragedies, including the deaths of their mother and two older sisters? In short, how'd they do it?

These aren't bad questions, but most Bronte fans have asked them many times before; I for one would greatly prefer to plunge wholeheartedly into the world of the family and draw my conclusions. And in any case, Teale's script doesn't deliver strong answers. Worse, her attempt to incorporate as much of the family history as possible—the timeline restructured in a confusing series of flashbacks—flattens the personalities of the trio into archetypes bordering on cliche. Charlotte's the pragmatic, ambitious one; Emily's the spooky girl; and Anne's socially conscientious. Somehow the Brontes come off here as an early Victorian version of Charlie's Angels, working undercover (in their first works they used the male noms de plume Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell) to fight patriarchy with their pens.

By default the Brontes' brother, ne'er-do-well Branwell (Gregory Anderson), becomes both the tragic hero and villain of the piece. A failure at nearly everything except self-destruction, Branwell's fearsome appetites and self-pity found their way into each of his sisters' books, along with his imaginative nature. It's not hard to see him as the tortured Heathcliff, brooding over his lost love for a married woman, or the increasingly cruel husband at the heart of Wildfell Hall—and, in fact, Anderson appears as both.

But if the play is about the sisters, as Teale's metatheatrical intro would lead one to believe, we need to see more of their conflicts and shifting alliances. A scene in which Charlotte and Anne let slip to Emily that they have violated her confidence by revealing her true identity to their publisher should be a key to the conflicts among them, but it isn't given sufficient heft.

The worst decision Teale makes is to incorporate the characters of Catherine and Bertha, both played by Linda Gillum. It's a thankless task that mostly requires Gillum to crawl around the stage looking like a wild-haired vampiric wraith out of an Edvard Munch painting. This device reduces the sisters' layered and philosophically meditative writings to cliches of gothic insanity.

In the second act, when Teale lets go of these intrusions and simply allows the story to breathe, it improves quite a bit. And one would have to be hard-hearted beyond belief not to be moved by the cascading series of deaths that beset the family toward the end. Branwell, then Emily, and finally Anne succumb to consumption, leaving Charlotte alone with their flinty father, Patrick—whose own struggles against the deprivations of his Irish childhood suggest the real source of the girls' gumption. Patrick Clear skillfully shifts among multiple roles, including those of the demanding patriarch and Charlotte's uncertain suitor and eventual husband, Arthur Nicholls Bell. Shunk's Charlotte takes on richer shadings as the tragedies draw to their conclusion, and Coon's Emily hints at the paradoxes of a shy woman who has an unapologetic sensualist hidden inside her. Sondag's Anne is a model of decency, but onstage as in life her story feels crammed in at the edges of her sisters'.

A landscape painting at the back of Tim Morrison's set inadvertently provides an apt metaphor for Teale's loving but frustratingly flawed tribute. Depicting the moors, it contains suggestions of wilderness just beyond the next hill—but it's also repetitive, flat, and devoid of the most telling details.v


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