It's easy to imagine that more than a century after its publication Kate Chopin's The Awakening might have lost some of its cultural relevancy. After all, the tale of a society doyenne who abandons her husband and takes a lover, once so scandalous, seems tame in the slipstream feminism, where women make up nearly half the workforce and the divorce rate holds steady at around 50 percent.
And yet, while The Awakening may no longer scandalize, what is clear from the St. Louis Actors' Studio's marvelous stage adaptation is that what persists is a work of enduring psychological relevancy — a close study of the grappling match in us all between societal constraint and personal freedom.
Artfully adapted for the stage by St. Louis' own Henry Schvey, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier (Emily Baker), who undergoes a profound transformation while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Once content with her role in New Orleans society, Edna emerges from the water with an overwhelming sense that there's more to life than corseted domesticity. After a brief but passionate dalliance with Robert LeBrun (Antonio Rodriguez), she returns to New Orleans where she continues to defy social mores — first taking up painting, then moving into a house of her own, abandoning her family, and finally having an affair with the womanizing Alcee Arobin (Nathan Bush).
Chopin's work comes alive in the hands of director Milton Zoth, and Patrick Huber's radically minimalist set contributes to the production's overall dreamlike quality. But the real revelation here is Baker, who as a lithe and electric Edna uses her entire body to articulate something for which the vocabulary did not exist: her craving for an undefined existential freedom.
Baker is riveting in the role, hopeful as she bathes in the light of her shiny new vision. But as the rest of the cast (strong, for the most part) moves from dismay to outright censoriousness, it becomes clear that New Orleans society can no longer accommodate her. The world she has known ostracizes her, and as she returns to the water in the production's sublime final scene, Baker's performance reaches new heights as Edna both rejects and succumbs to a world that has grown too small for her.