Acrobatic adaptation animates Lifeline show

By Lisbeth Redfield

Forget long dresses, longer landscape shots, and repressed, “meaningful” conversations: Christina Calvit’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View, is like Valentine’s Day come early, a welcome breath of romance and fun. The contemplative novel, with its many characters and picturesque landscapes, really does come to life on the stage, animated by the Lifeline ensemble and guests to a frothy, charming whole.

The Lifeline Theatre company is a secret of the North Side; finding their little brick theatre requires taking the Red Line nearly to Howard, but the result is well worth it. Founded in 1983, Lifeline’s specialty is staging innovative adaptations of great and popular works of fiction as well as commissioning original work. The ensemble is now entering its 24th season giddy and strong with a season featuring “romance, rhapsody, and rebellion.”

A Room With a View is, at its heart, a romantic tale of challenging conventional mores. Edwardian Miss Lucy Honeychurch encounters something different during a rigorously chaperoned visit to Italy. “Something different” is not only the Italian countryside and culture, but the unconventional Emersons, a father and son duo who have the gift—or curse—of saying exactly what they mean. Needless to say, they do not “take” in Florence, though Lucy is attracted to the enigmatic and curiously intense George.

Back in England in Act II, Lucy is engaged to Cecil Vyse, an intellectual snob who produces Wildean bon mots and wears a boater and pince nez (never take a character in clip-on glasses seriously). The Emersons return and Lucy is again exposed to the spirit of truth, courage, and love.

The production, staged in the Lifeline’s intimate performance space, proves the company line that they present “big stories, up close.” Lucy, whose inner energy manifests in her abandoned piano playing, swings from a trapeze to symbolize the freedom and emotional purity she finds in her music. She begins and ends the play on the trapeze, at first unable to say exactly what she likes or why she likes it, or even how it makes her feel. In many ways, this is a play about assertion: the ability to say, “I think” and “I want” instead of “I don’t know” or reliance on the vague adjectives played with throughout the script, like “nice” and “clever.”

The question of logistics—how does one take a novel and turn it into a play for a small house and 14 actors?—is easily dealt with. For scenic changes, the production relies on the physical presence of the trapeze as a symbolic prop and the ingenuity of the actors, many of whom play multiple roles, from Italian street people to church carvings.

The other challenge is the subject matter. A plot which turns on a stolen kiss on the Italian hillside seems a little dated and loses something in the present context. The success of this production, then, lies of course at the respective doors of the adapter and director, but especially that of Hillary Clemens, who gives us a sweet and vibrant Lucy.

Although Lucy’s practical conflict may not seem perhaps the drama it becomes, Clemens gives us an appropriately luminous “Lucia,” young but with glimpses of an innate maturity under the laughing exterior. The delivery of the lines is many times that of a contemporary teenager and Clemens gracefully embodies both a proper young lady in a costume drama and a 15-year-old girl with her first crush, unsure of exactly what to do and possessed of a vague longing that is difficult to articulate but indubitably present.

George Emerson, played by University of Chicago graduate Bryson Engelen, manages to be enigmatic and angry in a way which both baffles and intrigues, a perfect match for Lucy’s wholesome sparkle. Joined by Lucy’s extremely funny brother Freddy, the sympathetic clergyman Mr. Beebe, the drawling Vyse, the admirable and tiresome cousin Charlotte, and several others, the cast of A Room With a View has a top-notch ensemble. They give us a story without the bells and whistles; this is characters, evoked by lights and pictures but not much more than acting and good, solid storytelling; certainly not the smoke and mirrors of the big-budget production (notice they’re always “productions” now, not “plays” or “dramas”).

In a tiny, intimate house, we examine integral parts of human nature: love, freedom, self-expression, choice, and truth. This Room has a view in rather than out, but it is more than worth anyone’s while to go and have a look.