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THEATER REVIEW The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2009-04-22

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Playwright: adapted by Jay Presson Allen from the novel by Muriel Spark

At: Signal Ensemble at the Chopin, 1543 W. Division. Phone: 773-347-1350; $15-$20. Runs through: May 16

Adolescent crushes are a troublesome but unavoidable rite-of-passage, not unlike measles. Heroic mentors, with their mysterious hints of a world beyond our own mundane experience, ignite our imaginations, compelling us to deeds essayed in hopes of bringing us closer to their exalted status—and how can there be any harm in youngsters striving for excellence, whatever their motive? It's only when the objects of adoration are, themselves, enamored of the scenario imposed on them that they become a hazard to their immediate acquaintances.

The title character in Muriel Spark's novel, adapted for the stage by Jay Presson Allen, is just such a contradiction. The freethinking instructor at the Marcia Blaine Women's Academy enlivens her pupils' lessons with anecdotes of personal adventure tailor-made for appeal to hormone-driven girlish fancies—her lost sweetheart, slain in the recent great war, for example, or her speculative alliances with two of her male colleagues. Over time, it becomes apparent that Miss Brodie's first loyalty is to her own egotistical ideologies, other people serving as mere props to be manipulated into sharing in her casuistic machinations. But despite the forces of common sense marshaled against her, her spurned admirers—from the neglected disciple hungry for attention to the ex-lover wise enough to see through the game—know that they will never be free of her influence.

Allen's play is usually staged as a star vehicle for a patrician leading lady, making director Ronan Marra's choice of Patricia Austin—an actress more "sonsie" ( as Brodie's fellow Scots might say ) than statuesque—to play the dazzling schoolmistress a curious one. But as with all larger-than-life personalities, her credibility is less the product of her persona's own achievements than the responses of those surrounding her. However absurd her initial posturing may strike us, the obsessive fascination of her companions soon infects the most emotionally detached spectator with sufficient zeal to make us pity her inevitable comeuppance, even as we acknowledge its necessity.

The supporting cast assembled for this Signal Ensemble production—notably, Joseph Stearns and Aaron Snook as the befuddled swains, Brigitte Ditmars as the school's stern chief administrator, and a covey of young women, led by the always-beguiling Simone Roos—execute their responsibilities with insightful aplomb. Assisted by Elise Kauzlaric's phoneme-perfect dialects, their performances invoke both horror at the exploitation—however unconscious—of gullible children and rueful memories of our own reluctant farewells to false idols.


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