Chicago Theatre Review
In a Dark, Dark Room
Northanger Abbey – Remy Bumppo
One of Jane Austen’s lesser known novels, Northanger Abbey was among her earliest works, but was only revised and published after her death by her brother in 1818. The story has been enjoyed as BBC and A&E televised versions, and there have been several other novels inspired by Austen’s work. Most notably are an updated young adult novel called Northanger Alibi, by Jenni James, and Margaret C. Sullivan’s sequel to Austen’s classic, There Must Be Murder. However, except for Michael Napier Brown’s dramatic adaptation, written 15 years ago for the the Royal Theatre of Northampton, Austen’s most theatrical novel ironically hasn’t appeared much on stage. With Tim Luscombe’s new adaptation, all the melodrama and romance found in Jane Austen’s parody of the gothic novel finally sparkles on the boards.
Catherine Morland is a 17-year-old tomboy who spices up her otherwise mundane, small town life by voraciously consuming Gothic novels. When she’s invited to join her wealthier neighbors, the Allens, for a holiday in Bath, Catherine is suddenly introduced to the excitement of theatre, balls and society gatherings. For a while, her only companion is the fashion-obsessed Mrs. Allen, but eventually she meets and enjoys the company of other people her own age: Isabella Thorpe, a young, manipulative woman on the lookout for a prospective, wealthy husband and fellow devotee of escapist literature; John Thorpe, Isabella’s arrogant, boastful brother, also shopping for a wealthy mate; Henry Tilney, a handsome, young clergyman with a quick wit, a taste for good literature and a kind, sympathetic nature; Eleanor Tilney, his sweet, lonely sister who immediately takes to Catherine, inviting her for an extended visit at Northanger Abbey, their ancestral home. Eagerly accepting Eleanor’s invitation, Catherine’s imagination runs wild with romantic fantasies sparked by her obsession with her books. The play crackles with comic dialogue extracted directly from Miss Austen’s novel while its convoluted melodramatic plot rivals the daytime soaps.
Playwright Tim Luscombe has succinctly captured the rhythms and tone of the original novel while balancing Miss Austen’s themes of marrying for love not wealth, maturing into adulthood and understanding that fiction is meant for entertainment and not life lessons. His script still manages to create an entertaining (if a bit long) evening of theatre, especially for those rabid fans of Austenland. Director Joanie Schultz keeps her production in constant motion while making excellent use of Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s open, mirror-festooned playing space. Rachel Lambert’s lovely costumes are both adaptable and resemble authentic Regency English, except for some pesky buttons that refused to stay put. And Kendra Thulin’s work as dialect coach impeccably pays off.
Ms. Schultz’s eight-member, uniformly excellent cast all appear cool, collected and controlled, but they’re actually a hard-working ensemble. Many of her actors play several roles involving quick costume changes, exits and re-entrances. Also, with the exception of two artistic associates, the majority of the cast are making their debut with this consistently excellent theatre company. One such actor is Sarah Price as the vibrant, effervescent Catherine Morland. Her infectious smile and boundless enthusiasm carries this production which is wonderful, since she’s virtually never offstage. Company member Greg Matthew Anderson as Henry Tilney matches Ms. Price with his boyish good looks, courtly charm and eloquent demeanor. Veteran actress Annabel Armour beautifully two creates very different matronly characters as both Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Morland. A versatile Carl Lindberg does a commendable job playing both Catherine’s brother James and Henry’s older brother Frederick. Darci Nalepa makes a perfectly obnoxious Isabella to match Robert Hope’s loud, ill-mannered brother, John Thorpe. And Meg Warner’s Eleanor is lovely, sweet-natured with just the right amount of spunk, as she cowers under John Lister’s booming voice and austere manner, as her father General Tilney.
Remy Bumppo’s 17th season opener is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of early nineteenth century melodrama, manners and morals, seasoned with flights of shadowy gothic fantasy. Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel beautifully maintains the spirit of its source material and is destined to play to many more audiences after this awesome American premiere.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Oct. 2-Nov. 10 by Remy Bumppo at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.remybumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.