Homeschooled kids are as blessed with imagination as preachers’ daughters are fraught with repressed passion—and The Brontë sisters, being both, had both in spades.
In a house on a hill above a textile town in rural 19th-century England, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily led a relatively quiet and ordinary day-to-day life while writing torridly romantic fantasies—most notably, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Polly Teale’s Brontë, which Bag&Baggage Productions opened last weekend, vacillates between the sisters’ real and fantasy lives.
And how does this play out on stage?
It doesn’t! Instead, it gambols gamely through the aisles of the Hillsboro Public Library in a promenade-style performance born of sudden necessity. B&B, long headquartered at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre but planning to transition into a newly acquired building next year, has cut its 16-17 season short to accommodate the recent sale of the Venetian. In the process, Brontë has abruptly become the company’s season-closer, its library location an auspicious work-around. That said, Scott Palmer and company flourish in the face of adversity, setting Brontë so artfully in its library location that it actually feels preferable to a stage. How appropriate, after all, to show the late sisters living on amid books.
The play begins in the downstairs foyer, with the sisters making an entrance descending the stairs in their swooshing skirts, cracking books and rhapsodizing about their unexpected place in the annals of history. Going forward, wherever the Brontës beckon, the crowd follows—usually arriving at a seating configuration, but at points corralled standing; sometimes lulled through these short trips with speeches from the sisters, and sometimes waved through in silence. It’s a logistical feat, to be sure, but fortunately, all details have been attended that allow the audience to glide between milestones comfortably.
I must confess, I wasn’t sure at first. An early scene where the sisters romp giddily around their living room with their brother Bramwell playing some sort of sea-captain game is potently anglophile and pungently hammy. But it gets better. In fact, it gets great! These, after all, are the very young Brontës, and as they mature, so does the play. As the stakes heighten and the characters deepen, Charlotte (Cassie Greer) emerges as the responsible mother hen trying to suppress her own needs for others; Anne (Jessi Walters) proves the ebullient and perhaps underestimated youngest; and Emily (Morgan Cox) is a fretful and deeply feeling middle child O.G. Original Goth. Like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Brontë is best enjoyed by picking a favorite sister, yet rooting for them all. Unlike Little Women, these sisters are all depicted as equally, if differently, strong.
An International Women’s Day reading of this play highlights that, unfortunately, the same hurdles that slowed down the Brontë sisters are still too often hampering women today. The sisters lament that their brother is given (and blows) more chances to thrive than the three of them put together. They argue for and against corsets (which epitomize the constraints of female beauty). Amid a hail of mansplaining—including one publisher’s admonition that “wuthering” is not a word—they shrewdly choose to submit their novels to publishers under a man’s name. And even after they’ve achieve wild, wuthering success, they wryly note that other women are their most withering critics. As a female playwright, Polly Teale can no doubt relate, and she imbues her characters’ feminist dissent with humor and dignity.
Meanwhile, a cast of just two men and one additional woman provide the narrative glue between scenes, playing multiple roles in both the girls’ real lives and their written stories. These reality/fantasy liaisons demonstrate the parallels between real-life events in the Brontës’ lives and the storylines of their books
through sudden appearances and rapid character shifts. For example, Anne pauses from managing her real-life drunk brother Bramwell (Joey Copsey) to scribble his words into her journal—which evokes a quick character shift, and suddenly the siblings have become the fictitious husband and wife from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Similarly, whenever Charlotte expresses her own real-life lovesickness, she inadvertently summons Bertha (Jenny Newbry), a madwoman whom she’s wrought in print in Jane Eyre.
While Copsey intensifies the real-life storyline as the charismatic but volatile Bramwell and only rarely switches character, Jenny Newbry and Peter Schuyler are the most heavily tasked with transitioning between the interstitial characters on the fly. Mercifully, they handle it quite well; otherwise, we’d be lost. Schuyler deftly handles the potentially awkward transition between playing the girls’ father and two of Charlotte’s suitors. Newbry, whose two main roles are both fictitious—the girlish Cathy from Wuthering Heights and the dangerously insane Bertha from Jane Eyre—always manages to change costumes and postures, but sometimes, puzzlingly, forgets to wipe the beatifically girlish smile off her face even when she becomes a seductress or a madwoman. Regardless, these characters’ comings and goings vitally propel a story that would otherwise require much grander single conflict and resolution to sustain over a timespan that follows all three sisters (spoiler) through to their deaths.
Guest Director Michelle Milne must be much to thank for the saving nuances of this challenging and longish show, while the tech team deserves praise for using an even-more-challenging and wide-ranging space (while probably under orders not to disturb too much furniture in a functioning public building). And violinist Taylor Neist buoys the show with background music throughout, his tasteful History Channel-esque style never distracting audience from action.
All this to say, B&B’s season-closer is a technical triumph, a novel adventure, and a timely contribution to the feminist conversation. Go to the library and check it out.
Bag&Baggage’s Brontë continues through March 26 in the Brockwood Branch of the Hillsboro Public Library. Ticket and schedule information here.