"Jane Eyre" opens March 16 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But forget sweeping vistas of English moors and ornate Gothic mansions; this is not, according to the director and cast, "your grandma's 'Jane Eyre.' "
"'Downton Abbey' this is not," said Margaret Ivey, the actress playing Jane Eyre. "It looks like a very modern, very surreal world when you walk in."
The sleek set allows the audience, many of whom will know and love the classic novel, to imagine the scenery. It allows the cast to move quickly through the many scenes and settings and focuses attention on the characters' feelings and the plot.
"Reading the book, it's easy to get lost in the gorgeous adjectives Charlotte Bronte uses and not realize she's talking about love and lust and all these modern, sexy things," Ivey said.
First published in 1847, "Jane Eyre" has been adapted dozens of times in a wide variety of formats ranging from movies, musicals and operas to graphic novels and web series. The Playhouse production uses a script from Polly Teale that boils down the coming-of-age story.
There's no time spent, as Bronte did, on the exact color and texture of the curtains in the Red Room where Jane is sent as a child for punishment, and we don't get to see Jane inherit her fortune. But we do get a scene in which Jane, after accepting a job as a teacher, remarks about money she can afford to spend.
"It's important that Jane goes back to Rochester as an independent woman … that's how we see that," said director KJ Sanchez. "Polly Teale, what she's accomplished is in precise, specific ways, giving us Jane's story."
Readers, especially young girls, continue to see themselves in Jane, a heroine who carves out a life for herself alone, bucking traditions and expectations, through hard work and honesty. Sanchez was one of those girls, yet she said she was surprised, upon rereading the novel, how relevant the book remains.
"How is it that so many years later we're still vilifying brave, strong women?" said Sanchez.
She also likes that there are no easy answers in the story. Should Jane even be with Rochester? Is the story about finding happiness with another broken soul? Is it about finding yourself with someone who is as unloved and unwanted as you? Is it about becoming independent?
"It's all of those things. I continue to see more and more complexities and subtleties," Sanchez said. "In one way or another, every character feels not worthy of being loved. And at some point, every character gets some bit of redemption. … Even the most villainous characters in the story have some hope for redemption."
Ivey, a New York-based actress who interned at Playhouse in the Park, originally auditioned for another role. Sanchez asked her to come back and read for the lead role because, "she simply was Jane."
"She is smart, fearless … she has a simple, but really compelling stage presence," Sanchez said. "There's just a real honesty and an intelligent and simple beauty about her."
Ivey is an African-American actress. Like many directors, Sanchez insists on a diverse pool of actors for every production.
"If you cast someone by skin color, it's typecasting," Sanchez said.
A diverse casting pool helps find the absolute right person for a role, removing preconceived notions, Sanchez said. It also allows productions to better represent the American population.
"Representation on stage is something that I'm really passionate about," Ivey said. "When you can't see it, it can be hard to dream it. It's so huge to me because even when we're raised by parents who say you can do anything, it's hard to imagine yourself in something until you can see it."
For Ivey, the biggest challenge in playing Jane Eyre is living up to the book and its devoted readers.
"Every time I meet someone, they tell me what they think about Jane, how they feel about her," Ivey said. "I can't possibly do everything with Jane that people tell me, but I hope to do justice to the character who is so important to so many people."
Tickets and dates
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park presents "Jane Eyre" from March 11 through April 8. Tickets start at $35 for preview performances before opening night, March 16.
Participate in the Playhouse's "Jane Eyre" book club, which meets 7 p.m. April 3 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion.