Story: Edna Pontellier would seem to have it all: She’s a belle of the social set in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, the wife of a successful businessman and mother of two children.
All is not as it appears, though. Leonce Pontellier is a demanding husband whose concern for his wife is more about how she makes him appear in proper society. He reprimands her for spending too much time on the ‘foolish’ whims that seem to pre-occupy her thoughts. When they attend an opera at his command, she becomes infatuated with the bohemian life expressed by its temperamental star, Mademoiselle Reisz.
Edna’s own artistic instincts reveal a talent for painting, which even her stuffy friend Adele notices. She also catches the eye of a dashing young gentleman named Robert Lebrun, who soon finds himself under her sway.
As Edna becomes more attuned to her own desires and needs, she finds herself increasingly at odds not only with Leonce but also with the pressures of conforming to the genteel but myopic folks of Southern society.
Highlights: As part of the year-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting the professional premiere of playwright Henry Schvey’s adaptation of Kate Chopin’s landmark novel at the Missouri History Museum.
Chopin was a St. Louis native who was well-known in the late 19th century for her short stories. Her novel, The Awakening, however, was met with mostly chilly response for its non-traditional, feminist viewpoint. The current presentation on stage in the Des Lee Auditorium is not only a fitting adaptation of Chopin’s story but also a telling impression of the mores of the times.
Other Info: Schvey’s adaptation is most effective in the first act, when its characters, their era and locale are established, before veering too often into melodrama after intermission. Thanks to some top-notch performances by director Milton Zoth’s capable cast and Michael Perkins’ evocative video design, The Awakening offers a considered and sympathetic look at Chopin’s focal character, Edna.
Emily Baker brings subtlety and passion to the role of the stifled young wife, struggling to free herself from the shackles of her older and inflexible husband. With scenes of the rustic Louisiana shoreline or the backstreets of New Orleans on the video screen, Baker’s Edna makes a journey of self-discovery that is reminiscent of a similar young woman in Ibsen’s A Dollhouse. She is impassioned by the overtures of the appealing Lebrun, intrigued with the devil-may-care life of opera diva Reisz and convinces us with her gradual transformation that culminates in the novel’s famous ending.
Terry Meddows finely etches the narrow parameters of Mr. Pontellier’s life, enough to allow us a glance at Leonce’s increasing terror of losing his wife to her unknown desires. As Lebrun, Antonio Rodriguez is charming and debonair but also chafing with his longing for a married woman, even if the script descends into stilted melodrama along the way and the pacing might occasionally seem too precious.
Maggie Murphy complements Baker’s performance with a strong portrait of Edna’s friend Adele, who lacks Edna’s courage to seek something different even if she eventually understands its origins. Christie Mitchell fills Madame Reisz with equal portions of haughtiness and abandon and even some matronly support.
Nathan Bush, Michael Monsey and Molly Ross Fontana do well in smaller supporting roles that help decorate Edna’s increasingly complex world.
Patrick Huber’s scenic and lighting designs are simple but subtle, with a tree of chairs in the background that are moved to complement a dining table or substitute for a bench on the beach. Everyone looks dapper and dandy in Teresa Doggett’s richly elegant costuming, while Robin Weatherall’s lush sound design fills the setting with classical music that befits the situations.
As part of the ongoing STL250 celebration, The Awakening is a mostly satisfying and sublime paean to one of our city’s most famous literary lions.
Play: The Awakening
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBaliviere
Dates: March 20, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $20-$30; contact 361-9017 or mohistory.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb