An independent woman
by Richard Dodds
A literal adaptation of a literary work can be a slog for an audience. Words on a page have a different way of evoking emotions than words on a stage, and a novel's adaptor must take license to capture intent and spirit even at the price of reverence for the original storytelling techniques. It's a process that certainly carries risk, but Oren Stevens has pulled it off with Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Large swathes of the book have been discarded, scenes rearranged, and dialogue rewritten in an unexpectedly successful effort to capture the essences of Chopin's 1899 novel of early feminist ideas.
Chopin had been known as the author of amiable local-color stories set in and around New Orleans at the end of the 19th century, and critics and readers expected more of the same when The Awakening was announced for publication. Instead, shock and revulsion were frequently the response, and Chopin claimed to be surprised by the criticism. She shouldn't have been, for she had created a heroine who broke away from the most basic tenets of what it meant to be a woman of not only those times but decades to come.
Stevens developed his adaptation with Ariel Craft, whose direction of the new script is very much part of the effective translation into a theater piece. Presented by the Breadbox Theatre at Exit Theatre, Chopin's story is told in semi-realistic scenes that don't necessarily follow the same chronological order of the book, while adding a touch of the mystical further enhanced with choreographed movements by the cast. And it's a good cast playing the six characters that remain from the dozens that populated the novel.
At the very center of a storm of her own making is Edna Pontellier, an outsider who has married into the lingering remnants of the starchily formal French society in New Orleans. Her husband Leonce is a successful and often absent businessman, and with their two small children, they live in a handsome home in a fashionable part of town. Summers are spent on Grand Isle, a spit of sand that is the closest thing swampy Louisiana has to a beach resort, and it is there where we first meet Edna and Leonce among the other vacationing regulars. But for Edna, this will not be an ordinary summer.
This transformation is communicated in ways both subtle and intense in Maria Giere Marquis' focused performance as Edna. In her novel, Chopin wrote, "The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels." Marquis, working with Stevens' script and Craft's direction, communicates these and other sentiments in effective shorthand.
There is temptation for Edna on the isle in the form of buffoonish Robert Lebrun, a habitual flirt who is regarded as harmless by wives and husbands. But Edna becomes increasingly beguiled by Robert's disregard for societal hierarchies, and Justin Gilman captures the character's appeal as an unconventional man of his times. But Robert is unreliable as a paramour, nervously fleeing the scene when real romantic possibilities arrive, and back in New Orleans, Edna finds brief satisfaction through a local lothario (smoothly played by Elliot Lieberman) before Robert returns to unsettling results.
This production has the cast serving as a kind of cacophonous Greek chorus, exhorting Edna into different choices. More specifically tugging at her decisions are the good wife (warmly played by Kirsten Peacock) and an unmarried cynic (given a hint of the Sapphic in Genevieve Perdue's amusingly steely performance). As Edna's husband Leonce, Robin Gabrielli gives a steady performance as the vaguely clueless character.
"Love is burdened with ownership," Edna ultimately discovers, and she can't live without the former or with the latter. The novel's ending has always been a challenge for those who want to attach a proto-feminist gold star to the story. But as rendered with creativity in this sensitive production, we understand the crosscurrents pulling at Edna, and the radical decision she makes to navigate past them.
The Awakening will run at Exit Theatre through Aug. 20. Tickets are $20, available at breadboxtheatre.org.