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Wuthering Heights

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WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Bailiwick Repertory

Our culture tends to think of love as the great panacea--so much so that it seems impossible love might also be a great pathogen. To be sure, AIDS and the divorce rate have demonstrated the wisdom of tempering passion with prudence, but these problems are easily dismissed, their existence just one more reason to cherish the notion of a pure, con- stant, all-consuming devotion. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847, may be read today as a lament for love doomed by a corrupt world, or as a fable about the folly of loving too rashly, or even as a sociological treatise on how poverty and abuse can turn the most innocent of children into erotic psychopaths.

Bronte's story revolves around the bond forged between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff: together they rebel against her strict father and, later, against her older brother, Hindley. But their loyalty to each other is challenged when Catherine announces that she'll marry Edgar Linton, the wealthy boy next door. Vowing to avenge himself on both the Earnshaws and the Lintons, who would rob him of the woman he adores, Heathcliff draws the dissolute Hindley deeper and deeper into debt until he's completely dependent on the man he formerly scorned, marries and mistreats Edgar's frivolous sister Isabella, and bullies Catherine's daughter, Cathy, and his own unfortunate son. Meanwhile Catherine dies in childbirth, but her daughter turns out to have her stubborn courage. The young Cathy cultivates the friendship of Hareton, Hindley's neglected son, and thus thwarts Heathcliff's plan for revenge, bringing about a peace between the two households. The by-now-weary Heathcliff must be united with his lover in death.

Jeff Casazza's deftly constructed adaptation retains Bronte's intricate story and her flamboyant language, distilling the dense narrative to an amazing two and a half hours--which, thanks to David Zak's swift-paced direction, passes as if in minutes. Zak also manages to suggest the scope of a story in which all of nature must sympathize with the protagonists--a basic motif in Romantic literature--by providing four black-cloaked chorus men whose dusky menace evokes the wild and blasted Yorkshire heath.

Credit for the remarkable coherence of this Bailiwick Repertory production is also due the cast, who display some of the most razor-keen enunciation heard this season--in particular Mary C. Beidler, whose Nelly Dean bears most of the burden of narration. Christine Rea's Catherine all but bristles with sensual vigor: she's a suitably heroic lover. And though Philip E. Johnson's blond good looks and wiry frame are a long way from the "dark-complexioned gypsy" Bronte describes Heathcliff to be, his catlike grace and concentrated vitality more than compensate for occasionally underexpressive line readings. Able support is supplied by Ken DeWyn as the gentle Edgar, Tim Decker as the spineless Hindley, and Michelle Gregory as the defiant Cathy; in fact the ensemble's indefatigable energy rescues a play that might have foundered all too easily under its own weight.

Theatergoers hoarding memories of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon may be disappointed by Bailiwick's reliance on intelligence, not emotion, but those who recall Bronte's novel only as a schoolroom chore may be surprised by how much it speaks to an age in which "romance" is a word uttered mainly by advertisers and advice columnists.

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