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Strindberg Redux

After Miss Julie at the Irish Classical Theater Company

August Strindberg’s naturalistic tragedy, Miss Julie, is one of the great plays of the Modern repertoire, and yet it can be a difficult sell. Here, the often competing needs for love and financial security meet in the persons of a spoiled socialite and her ambitious chauffeur. The central roles are delicious and yet, the piece is performed rather rarely. The typical take is that John, the chauffeur, convinces Miss Julie that she is a prisoner of her social class, and the only escape is suicide—not a cozy or compelling theme for today’s audience. Enter playwright Patrick Marber and a version of the story that transplants the action from 1888 Scandinavia to an English country estate in 1945 on the eve of a historic Labor party victory. The action is still confined to the kitchen, the characters are still Jean, Miss Julie, and Jean’s fiancée, Christine, but the new setting and a heightened sense of sexual energy alter the stakes and update the resonance of the story.

As for the Irish Classical Theatre Company production, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, sometimes the gods of theater smile down and everything goes right. This would be such an occasion.

Dashing in a casual and confident way, Christopher Evans is marvelous and entirely believable as the chauffeur John, a man whose family has worked on this estate for generations, but who sees the opportunity for a better life on the horizon. He plays the role with an air of earnest sincerity that belies the ambitious yearning beneath the surface. Every gesture is clean and precise, right down to his signature tossing of one lock of his straight ash blond hair.

He is matched by the wonderfully nuanced performance by Anne Roaldi Boucher as Christine, John’s proud and proper fiancée, who is also a servant on this grand estate. Alternately endearing and controlling, she provides the moral compass for a play in which morality and propriety are shifting dangerously beneath the feet of the characters in the wake of sexual and monetary desire.

Of course, any version of Miss Julie depends upon the performance of the actress who plays the lady herself. Here, the Irish Classical Theatre scores an unmitigated victory in the exquisite performance of Kate LoConti, home from Chicago for this occasion. Imbuing the character with a feline physicality, in LoConti we can see the conflicting feelings of disappointment, desire, hate, resentment, and self-loathing each rendered with perfect clarity of intention. From the moment the actress saunters onto the stage, emboldened by drink and the absence of her father, we feel the danger of her reckless abandon. By increments, she layers on the telling details of her life, the non-conformist mother, the chronically depressed but demanding father, her lonely childhood and abandonment by her betrothed. This is to be a fateful night for everyone.

This ensemble is perfection and a celebration of the genius of Strindberg, and a credit to Marber’s astute adaptation of the work. Each character is trapped by circumstance; each is motivated by his or her own vision of escape.

Set Designer David Dwyer, has converted the arena setting of the Andrews Theatre into a deep thrust in order to lend the space the more traditional feel, compatible with a naturalistic piece. He has devised a grand and convincing kitchen, the perpetual off-stage life of a privileged family we never see—except through the unwelcome visitation of Miss Julie. This social cul-de-sac is heighted by Brian Cavanagh’s effective lighting and especially by Tom Makar’s clever and emotionally compelling sound design. Dixon Reynolds’ costumes effectively underscore both the personalities and social status of the characters, and simultaneously give the actors plenty of opportunity to build on the script, as when LoConti uses the skirt of her dress to entice Jean sexually, or to express her feelings of physical humiliation.

Any hesitation I might have had about a new “version” of one the most perfect plays in the Modern repertoire evaporated entirely while watching this production, directed with confident focus by Pezzimenti and enthrallingly performed by a dream of a cast.

Performances continue through March 22.