KPBS AIRDATE: October 15, 1997
Thanks to the wonders of modern stage and screen adaptations, an author sometimes gets remembered for something he hardly intended. Take Henry James, for instance. “Washington Square” was far from his literary best, but, with a 1949 stage adaptation called “The Heiress,” that went right to the movies, and was recently revived to great acclaim on Broadway, and with a new film just released, “Washington Square” may be The Big One for him, or all he’s known for, by some. Similarly, though C.S. Lewis has been loved and admired for decades because of his fantasy tales of Narnia, it’s probably not what the theologian would most want to be remembered for. And, given the current stage adaptation of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” he’d be right.
Lamb’s Players Theatre usually hits the comic or dramatic nail on the head, but this time, they’re way off the mark. This adaptation was ill-fated from the start. Six years ago, artistic director Robert Smyth had completed rehearsals and started previews of an adaptation, when the rights were pulled for a touring production that never ultimately materialized. Nonetheless, Smyth persevered, and now he’s got a new version of his long-cherished fairy tale, with music by his talented wife, Deborah Gilmour Smyth. But it just doesn’t work.
Aiming to maintain some of the lush language of the original, Smyth created a memory play, with unnecessary exposition provided by one of the protagonists, all grown-up. She tells us all about the four London kids, of which she was the youngest, sent to the country to stay with their godfather during the dangerous days of the second World War. They find themselves in a humongous house with nothing to do but explore, and when Lucy, our narrator, steps into this huge back-room wardrobe, she steps out into Narnia, a magical land “where animals talk and it’s always winter, but never Christmas.”
Unfortunately, there’s very little magic, or drama, or even action in this production. And it’s not at all clear for whom it’s intended. Some of the acting is adolescent, but the music is very adult; the complex, contrapuntal, a capella interludes, though harmonically lovely, become tedious and redundant, often bordering on ludicrous. The play and the production take themselves too seriously and they’re far too far from fun. There’s too little intrigue, not enough imagination or fantasy, and too much underscoring of the religious undertones. A very disappointing venture all around, though three of the four children — all but the overacting family “traitor,” Edmund — are charming naturals.
On the positive side of revivals and adaptations, however, is the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of “The Heiress,” which is simply beautiful. Don Loper makes his directorial debut here with taste, class and style. And D. Candis Paule gives a breathtaking performance, a gracefully nuanced portrayal of mousy Catherine Sloper, who develops a tough, tensile resolve as she struggles for identity and dignity in this tale of love, betrayal and revenge. Charlie Riendeau and Jeffrey Jones do justice to the men in her life, a disparaging father and a foraging suitor. And Sandra Ellis-Troy gets the busybody Aunt Lavinia just right. The set, costumes and lighting are as detailed as Loper’s direction. In short, this is one of North Coast’s most polished productions. The play, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, may lean a bit toward melodrama, but it’s a true triumph of will, and this re-creation is a theatrical treat.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.