October 9, 2012

The Woman in White, the audience in blankets

Before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there was Wilkie Collins. Though nowadays his works are relegated to the back shelf of semi-significant Victorian novels, Collins is responsible for some of the first detective stories ever written, which may have influenced the famous Sherlock Holmes novels, published three decades later. And though The Woman in White isn’t strictly a detective novel, this particular Wilkie Collins tale is nevertheless one of mystery and intrigue, clues and deductions.

Lifeline Theatre—renowned in Chicago for their award-winning adaptations of literary classics, from Austen to Stevenson—presents The Woman in White fast on the heels of their adaptation of Collins’s other famous detective story, The Moonstone. Also set in that oh-so-familiar Victorian era, it’s a tale of nefarious villains and noble ladies, in which love and goodness win out in the end. Who would have guessed?

The story of The Woman in White centers on the young heiress Laura Fairlie, who is tricked into a loveless marriage by a ruthless suitor who wants her money. With no family to turn to and no way of appealing to the courts (it’s the 19th century, after all), Laura must unravel the conspiracy at the center of which she finds herself. She is aided along the way by her “true love,” the poor artist Walter Hartright, her sister Marian, and a mysterious woman in white (Maggie Scrantom), who is the spitting image of Laura herself.

There are many Victorian clichés here: The lady protagonist is pure and virtuous, her beau is well-meaning yet utterly incapable, the gender politics are classically, well, Victorian, but the performance is still engaging. It begins with a vision of the woman in white, whose seemingly mad forebodings cast a spooky aura over the story to come, making it the perfect play to watch while curling up with a blanket (yes, Lifeline Theatre gives you blankets, because it’s cold in there). It’s not surprising, then, that we first encounter the play’s inventive villains in the next scene. Opera-singing and philosophizing Count Forsco (Christopher M. Walsh) is a memorable antagonist, fascinating to watch as he weaves his nefarious web. He’s sophisticated, almost exquisitely so, and not quite evil enough to warrant complete hatred. Sir Perceval Glyde (Robert Kauzlaric), Laura’s husband, is in cahoots with the Count. Though he’s a gentleman at first glance, there’s something not quite right about Sir Perceval that’s quickly explained when he transforms into the second villain of the piece.

Though the play is a Victorian drama, its female characters are particularly strong. Loretta Rezos gives a sassy, satisfying performance as Jane Catherick, the mother of the mysterious woman in white, and her daughter’s madness is hauntingly captured by Scrantom. Marian Halcombe (Mean M. Storti) is another intriguing character who serves as a formidable match for Count Fosco. And finally, Anita Deely is excellent in her brief appearances as Count Fosco’s long-suffering wife and trusted co-conspirator. Though the play is driven more by plot than character development, these actors put enough peculiarities and complexities in their interpretations to remain engaging.

The play’s staging is thoroughly cinematic. There is a heavy dose of soundtrack, and the set designers are clearly adept. Fires and nightmares, rain and fog—all are vividly depicted with recordings and small tricks of lighting. The set itself is plain, yet those few meters of stage and sparse furnishings are cleverly used to accommodate multiple locales imaginatively. The audience is transported back to a foggy Victorian England—a place one regrets leaving when the play ends and you’re left with a blanket crumpled in your lap.