After surviving the loss of her parents, an unloving fostership by her aunt and years in a grim school for poor girls, Jane Eyre lands her first job as governess for the ward of wealthy bachelor Edward Rochester. Her hard-knock life has given Jane a humble mien and tough competence that masks her still-girlish emotional state. Rochester sums her up nicely when he meets her for the first time, remarking with no small amount of surprise and delight that she "must be tenacious of life" to have survived eight years at Lowood School.
"Tenacious of life" may as well be Jane's motto. In Julie Beckman's adaption of Charlotte Brontë's novel, the heroine is a deep well of composure and resourcefulness. Sarah Cannon brings the title character to life in this Deanna Jent-directed Mustard Seed Theatre production of Jane Eyre with the requisite tenacity and a pervasive good humor that well serves both character and story.
Beckman's script calls for the actors to narrate their own actions, most often from Jane's point of view. So when Donna Weinsting's good-hearted Mrs. Fielding is confused by a bit of banter between Jane and Rochester, Weinsting says, "Mrs. Fielding found the conversation hard to follow," and then delivers Mrs. Fielding's lines. In the early going, this seems an overly passive way of relaying the story, particularly when Jane must narrate her own inner thoughts at length while passing from foster home to school. But once the story expands to include the glittering world of Rochester's manor house and his social circle, the method yields stronger results, as several of Rochester's peers are revealed to be strangely barren of thought. This underscores the superficial world Rochester inhabits, and the bubbling spring of thought and feeling Jane brings to his life.
Shaun Sheley is a worthy Rochester to Cannon's Jane. He's brooding and withdrawn when she arrives, a lonely intellect surrounded by empty conversation. Of course Jane is supposed to fall in love with this enigmatic older gentleman, and she suffers for it behind her professionalism while Rochester remains oblivious to all emotion. But as Jane and Rochester continue their rather informal boss-and-employee verbal jousting, Cannon and Sheley show in sidelong glances and the ever-decreasing physical distance between them that something grows in their hearts. Rochester holds her hand a bit too long during one goodbye, the two of them locked in a silent gaze; the man a few seats over from me whispers to his wife, "I think he likes her." He is not wrong.
This being a proper Gothic romance, of course there's a crazy woman in the attic — played with excellent maniacal giggling and shrieks by Katie Donnelly — who is an impediment to Jane's and Rochester's happiness. Here as in all other matters, Jane chooses the proper course of action and leaves Rochester's home to once again make her own way in the world. This leads to many personal discoveries for Jane, always taking her further from her first love. It also gives the exceptionally strong ensemble a chance to cycle through some oddly endearing characters, particularly B. Weller's dull and earnest clergyman, St. John, who finds Jane's moral fiber vastly appealing and eminently marriageable.
Will odd-duck Rochester and indefatigable Jane work out in the end? Well, she is tenacious of life. If the ending is never in doubt, at least the romance is properly consummated, with more hardship for both parties and a surprisingly cheerful acceptance of same. What can you say? The girl's got moxie.