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Off-Broadway Review

NY Review: 'Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte'

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NY Review: 'Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte'
Photo Source: Ronnie Wright
The chief problem with any one-person show is that the sole actor has no one with whom to talk or against whom to act. The usual solutions include conversing with an unheard offstage character, addressing the audience directly, reading a letter out loud, and sparring with a ghost. “Brontë: A Portrait of Charlotte” employs all of them often, plus video title cards, and is minus any talking on the telephone, which had yet to be invented in 1849, when the play is set. These ploys were distractingly evident even when Julie Harris starred in this work, written for her by William Luce, back in the 1980s (and then called “Currer Bell, Esquire,” Charlotte’s male nom de plume). The script began life as a radio play, also starring Harris, in which talking directly to the listeners was the only option. Onstage Harris somewhat overcame this excessive use of unseen foils by re-channeling the repressed literary spinster she had so successfully employed as Emily Dickinson in her previous collaboration with Luce, “The Belle of Amherst.”

Charlotte Brontë, saner and less conflicted than Dickinson, requires a more robust portrayer, and she gets one here in Maxine Linehan, who also seems much nearer the age Charlotte was when she died at not quite 40, in 1855. Linehan clearly has enthusiasm for her subject but at times seems a tad too lively to be the last survivor of six Brontë siblings and the dutiful caregiver of her cranky minister father, Patrick. Charlotte was a self-incarcerated prisoner in the bleak parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, but one with no remaining hope of escape. Linehan sometimes plays her as if she could leave at any time.

The single late afternoon and evening over which the two-hour play takes place are given over to reminiscing about the literary and otherwise limited lives of Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne and the dissolute and unfulfilled life of their brother Branwell. In her rambling discourse, Charlotte picks up toys and other items from the Brontë childhood and recalls their significance, fusses over furnishings, writes to her friend Nell, calls loudly to the deaf and silent maid, and waits seemingly in vain for her one last gentleman caller, her father’s curate, whom she may have to marry out of desperation. She recounts a few book-related details, such as the failure of the self-published poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, and the trip she and Anne made to their incredulous London publisher, who hadn’t known that his successful authors were women. (“ ‘Wuthering Heights’ stayed home,” Charlotte explained.) They were outed to a wider public only after their deaths.

Scenic designer Robin Vest has provided Charlotte with an appropriate early Victorian living room replete with reproduction period furniture and the nifty metaphor of four empty hanging frames—at least until one of them is filled with the video narration that Charlotte can’t cover. Camille Assaf has designed a properly somber garnet-colored gown. Alas, director Timothy Douglas does little to leaven the narrative’s static nature, and his one stab at it fails badly. Someone thought it a good idea to turn the 19th-century American folk song “In the Pines” to “In the Moors” and have Charlotte sing it as a paean to Yorkshire!( By the way, it should be “On the Moors.”)

Presented by Alloy Theater Company at Theater 511, 511 W. 54th St., NYC. May 8–26. Wed.–Fri., 8 p.m. (Additional performances Sat., May 19, 3 and 8 p.m.) (212) 352-3101, (866-811-4111), or www.theatermania.com.

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