Review: 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'

Watching the Studio Theatre's revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was reminded of Norma Desmond's famous line in Sunset Boulevard: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Only in this case, it's the role of Jean Brodie, the Auntie Mame-style schoolmarm, that is gloriously outsized and the production that is dwarfed by miscasting.

The show's credibility depends on the charismatic flamboyance of the actress playing the compelling, if eccentric, educator. "Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life," declares Miss Brodie, who dismisses inconsistency with a testy "Try to do as I say, not as I do." Frequently employing her love life and world travels as curriculum, she is hopelessly out of step with the repressive forces at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh.

The role of Miss Brodie has been a gold mine for significant actresses. Vanessa Redgrave earned raves in the original West End production in 1966, Zoe Caldwell won a Tony in 1968 for the Broadway production, and Maggie Smith won an Oscar for the 1969 film version. More recently, Fiona Shaw played the role in a 1998 revival at the Royal National Theatre in London. The Studio Theatre is using Jay Presson Allen's updated script, commissioned by the National and based on Muriel Spark's novel.

Veteran Sarah Marshall can emote with the best of them. In 25 years of significant roles in Washington-area theatres, this Helen Hayes Award-winning actress has raged as Miss Margarida, postured as the madwoman of Chaillot, and shaved her head for Playing for Time. So why, as Miss Brodie, does she remind us more of the winsome pup she portrayed in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia than of a Scottish Cleopatra? What's lacking is the magnetism and sexual sizzle that would attract a marriage proposal from music teacher Gordon Lowther (Richard Stirling) or spark the adoration of the dashing but married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (David Adkins), whose portraits all resemble his paramour. Marshall's Miss Brodie is playful rather than dictatorial. It further strains credibility that statuesque Sarah Grace Wilson, as the vengeful Sandy Stranger, Miss Brodie's betrayer, towers like a warrior over her petite mentor.

Utilizing the generous space in the new Metheny Theatre, Daniel Conway has designed a two-story wood compound that doubles as the Blaine School and the nunnery to which the adult Sandy retreats. Artistic Director Joy Zinoman and Stirling collaborated on the religious and period choral music. However, the Kyries and lilting tunes accompanying the frequent and lengthy set changes cloy. Although costume designer Alex Jaeger appropriately dresses Miss Brodie as a classy cardinal among wrens, the girls' ugly brown uniforms are unnecessarily unbecoming.

Standouts among the cast of 18 include the formidable Catherine Flye as Miss MacKay, the conservative headmistress, who is Miss Brodie's adversary. Bless her for her consistent, intelligible accent. Elizabeth Chomko smiles sweetly as Jenny, the designated "pretty one" of Miss Brodie's special set. Mary C. Davis is credible as the emotional Monica, and Ellen Warner is touching as the sweet, if slow-witted and ill-fated, Mary MacGregor.

According to the comprehensive program notes, between the two World Wars female teachers in Scotland were not only paid less than men, but were forbidden to marry, and liaisons of any sort were also cause for expulsion. It's likely this conflict would have contributed to Miss Brodie's imbalance. Despite her shortcomings, she deserves credit for dedicating her "prime" to her students' enlightenment. Unfortunately, this production does not give her what she is due.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie runs March 8-April 16 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. Tickets: (202) 332-3300. Website: www.studiotheatre.org.