Sporting some of the most lackluster acting this Valley has seen in a long time, the current play by Phoenix Theatre has proven that a wonderful story and a well-crafted script cannot save poor execution onstage. PT's second production of this season, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, turns into an endurance test, as moment after dramatic moment is lost in muddled performances.
This intriguing and disturbing story of a radical teacher, Jean Brodie, is told by one of Brodie's former students, who, as an adult, has become a bitter, disillusioned nun named Sister Helena. The story is set in the 1930s.
Brodie teaches her select group of pupils, her "crme de la crme," about her view of life--romance, religion, politics. This does not settle well with the administration of the conservative Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Scotland, where Brodie teaches, and Brodie is eventually fired. But not before she manipulates her favorite pupils into accepting her dreams as their own, thus encouraging one student to endanger her life by running off to war-torn Spain, and another to become the lover of one of her instructors.
This powerful script by Jay Presson Allen (based on Muriel Spark's novel) has been a vehicle to showcase talent since its first production in 1966, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. It opened on Broadway in 1968 with Zoe Caldwell's Tony Award-winning portrayal, followed by the 1969 screen version starring Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for her performance. This role provides the perfect platform for an actress to show what she can do. It is rare to see so little done with such a great opportunity, as is the case in this current production.
Director Michael D. Mitchell has cast Carolyn Allport in this jewel of a role, but there is no luster in her performance. Allport flits through her dialogue instead of discovering the strong, invulnerable essence of Brodie. Even during confrontational scenes, Allport's energy remains low and her lines seem thrown away. There is no heightened emotion when Brodie is fired or when she is confronted with the evidence of her negative effects on her students. Allport's interpretation of Brodie is not only an opportunity missed, but apparently an opportunity never noticed.
Some of Allport's fellow cast members do not fare much better. As Teddy Lloyd, the womanizing art teacher, Jon Simpson sleepwalks through his role. Mike Waugh's portrayal of Gordon Lowther, the music teacher with whom Brodie is having an affair, is overdone, as is Scott Johnson's performance as the reporter who prompts Sister Helena to tell her story.
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The production is not without some merit. This artistic mishap takes place on a gorgeous, flexible, institutional set (designed by Gro Johre) and is accompanied by moving music. Gene Ganssle's music choices fill the academic halls with intrigue and anticipation. (An unintended technical plus is that Paul Black's lighting design keeps so much of the action in the dark that the audience cannot always be sure which performer is guilty of the latest acting violation.)
And Brodie's pupils, four of whom are emphasized during the course of the play, are delightful. Their discovery of the real world evokes memories of the excitement and confusion of adolescence. Particularly enchanting are Cynthia Zane as the stuttering Mary MacGregor, and Angelica Frost as Jenny, "the beautiful one." Rounding out Brodie's elite are Melinda Thomas, as Sandy, and Mary-Frances Moskal, as Monica. These four are most effective when left alone to discuss their cultlike admiration of Brodie. Christie Klein, as Sister Helena, carries herself with dignity and brings a thoughtfulness to this troubled character. Sylvia Amundsen provides an appropriately ominous presence as the headmistress of the school, Miss Mackay. As the caretaker of the school's young students, Amundsen masterfully walks the tightrope between the stern administrator and the loving parent.
Phoenix Theatre has been a favorite performance venue for both amateur and professional actors throughout the Valley for some time. Knowing how performers flock to PT auditions, I can't imagine that there was not a better pool of talent from which to cast this production, which, I'm afraid, never reaches its prime.--Gerald Thomson
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie continues through Sunday, November 12, at Phoenix Theatre, Central and McDowell.