Arts & Entertainment » Theater

Geva Theatre Center brings a breath of fresh 'Eyre'

By

Geva Theatre Center took its customary break for the summer, but Elizabeth Williamson has been busy.

The summer calendar for the theater’s new artistic director has been crammed with introductions to Rochester and its arts scene, and meetings in preparation for the upcoming season, including getting shows on their feet.

The first show of her inaugural season will be “Jane Eyre,” a play Williamson adapted from the novel and has directed before.

Announcing her arrival to the Rochester theater scene with a faithful adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic might seem out of step with Geva’s recent push to produce works by historically marginalized artists and Williamson’s extensive background developing new stories by living playwrights.

Williamson defended her choice this way: “I think every season should be a broad mix of stories bringing a number of different experiences onstage.”

She called “Jane Eyre” the story “of a really independent young woman who despite not having any family, any class standing… manages to figure out that she wants to create an independent life for herself and proceeds to do so.”



Williamson spoke by phone from a taxicab on her way to LaGuardia Airport, where she was scheduled to return to Rochester from New York City after holding auditions for “Somewhere,” the second show of the Geva season.

Her love and knowledge of “Jane Eyre” runs deep. She recalled first reading it as a teenager and being immediately grabbed by the heroine. In college, she took women’s studies classes that held “Jane Eyre” up as foundational to understanding Victorian gender norms.

“She was such a radical voice at the time,” Williamson said of Brontë, who wrote the book under a pen name and saw it published in 1847. “The novel was crucified when it came out.”

Since then, the story has been adapted for television, film, manga, and the stage, including two operas.

About a decade ago, Williamson wanted to direct a production based on the novel, but was dissatisfied with the stage adaptations available. She felt none sufficiently focused on Jane’s journey, which she sees as the core of the book.

She downloaded the nearly-600-page novel to her computer and began copying and pasting Brontë’s prose, identifying scenes and lines that could most succinctly tell the story.

Williamson said 90 percent of her adaptation was taken directly from the book, and that any new lines were written in the style of Brontë.

While the novel starts in Jane’s childhood, Williamson’s theatrical adaptation skips ahead to the first moment of decision in Jane’s adult life, when she applies for work as a governess.

“Usually positions like that would be found through connections,” Williamson explained. “She figures out how to do that herself. There’s no one guiding her, no one helping her.”

Williamson’s adaptation was first produced at Hartford Stage, where she was the associate artistic director and director of new play development before joining Geva. The production ran in early 2020 and closed a week early due to the onset of the pandemic, but received rave reviews.

The star of that production, English actress Helen Sadler, will reprise her role as Jane Eyre at Geva.

Sadler is just one of Williamson’s past collaborators coming to Rochester. Later this season, Hartford Stage’s former artistic director Darko Tresnjak will direct the first in-person production of “Russian Troll Farm,” a new play originally created for streaming during the pandemic.

Returning to “Jane Eyre” after a tumultuous two years, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Williamson said she is especially drawn to the importance of Jane’s autonomy and ability to control her life.

She admires Brontë’s use of the Gothic, a popular Victorian genre, to address social issues concerning women. She hopes to bring the book’s horror and suspense to the stage.

“You get into this mysterious house,” Williamson said. “You’re hearing strange sounds from the third floor. Odd things keep happening. And of course, what’s going on in this mysterious house speaks to all the things going wrong in society.”

Some parts of Brontë’s classic haven’t aged well. A middle-aged man manipulating and courting the 18-year-old governess under his employment, for example, feels less swoon-worthy in the Me Too era. Critiques have also questioned the book’s portrayal of a Creole woman as a racialized other who must be sacrificed for Jane’s happy ending.

Williamson is less interested in exploring these problematic aspects of the book with her production, instead looking to highlight the Gothic atmosphere, the period romance, and “what it is for this young woman to create the life she wants.”

A more in-depth look at the novel will be offered in “A Feminist Lens Symposium,” a discussion coordinated by Rachel DeGuzman, Geva’s director of engagement, on Sept. 30. The event includes a keynote address from scholar Irma McClaurin. The event is free to the public with registration.

Williamson said the question of how the “complex and challenging story” of “Jane Eyre” can be read across time periods is part of its appeal.

“I think it’s important to go back and continue grappling with it,” she said.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.