Signal’s stark schoolhouse shocker Jean Brodie makes the grade

Thanks to its no-frills narrative, the Signal Ensemble Theatre’s dramatic production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, directed by Ronan Marrow, lays bare the unsettling forces at work in the story.

By Christian Wentling

You may have had a teacher like this before: you know, the one who watched Dead Poets Society too many times and hugged people too often. This sort of teacher was, by his or her own account, tutor to future astrophysicists, playwrights, and statesmen. Your classroom was Olympus; you and your classmates were deities resting mildly on your thrones, basking in the warmth of your own sixth-grade genius; and your teacher was almighty Zeus…in his or her own estimation.

The inimitable Miss Jean Brodie of the 1961 Muriel Spark novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is the inspiration, the model, for this kind of teacher. Thanks to its no-frills narrative, the Signal Ensemble Theatre’s dramatic production of the iconic work, directed by Ronan Marrow, lays bare the unsettling forces at work in the story.

Jean Brodie teaches 12-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Scotland. Her students are no ordinary students, but “Brodie girls,” “the crème de la crème,” and communicants in an arcane and wondrous world of art, knowledge, beauty, and, of course, sex. The story traces Brodie’s precipitous fall from grace, as the miscalculations of her professional life, the manipulations of her personal life, and the fatal embitterment of one of her own girls unite to bring about her ruin.

At the play’s beginning, Signal’s production puts the audience in the pupils’ places, dwarfed by Brodie’s pseudo-intellectual pontifications and boldfaced fabrications about love and life as she glides across the stage. The Chopin Theatre’s stage is a kind of funnel that actors enter onto from either end, with two divided parts of the audience facing each other from opposite sides of the stage. As a result, one feels self-conscious under the eyes of the audience, and somewhat amazed at the frenetic pace of the performance. In addition, at different points in the play Miss Brodie’s students sit in the audience. The audience is made to identify with the 12-year-olds—self-conscious and at times cowed by a world that moves slightly faster than they can handle.

The fascination with Miss Brodie sours quickly, however, and suddenly seems to invite opprobrium from both audience and characters for all manner of sins. She has three important protégés, each of whom she abuses. She tries to live vicariously through her students, pushing one into a love affair with an older, married man and sending another to fight for Franco in Spain. After a while, we see Miss Brodie plainly as a farrago of megalomania, delusion, and impishness. Patricia Austin, in the title role, channels Brodie’s zeal for pet projects and self-glorification and delivers a charged performance.

As her misdeeds come home to roost, the action winds down, and the destruction or, as Brodie calls it, the “assassination” of Miss Brodie seems complete. The audience nods a grave assent to the justice of her punishment and congratulates itself on having culled maybe a small handful of morals from the plot. But then we are returned to the beginning of the story, where one of the girls, having grown old and become a nun, is recounting the story to an inquisitive young reporter. She acknowledges the continuing influence of Miss Brodie, and we are left to ask how to judge such mentors. How do we fit them into our personal histories? Should we scapegoat, revile, or pity them? No one should ask a drama for unequivocal answers, but it seems fair to look for some kind of judgment of the story, and this is either absent or unclear in Signal’s production. No one seems to have considered what the audience is supposed to be thinking after the action on the stage winds to a close.

That said, Signal’s production is solid. The actors are energetic and carry the play’s dialogue, much of which is lifted directly from Spark’s novel, effectively to the audience. At times, however, the cast is too bombastic and seems smitten with its own theatricality. The play’s production values are bare bones: The costumes are plain, and the simple set consists of a blackboard, cupboard, and desk. One euphemism for spaces like Chopin Theatre is “intimate.” While it is unquestionably a good thing to be close to the stage, the pillars that block the audiences’ view are unacceptable and are annoying. Notwithstanding these problems, this is a professional, lively production of a time-tested work, and it is well worth seeing.