GOSHEN -- An achingly sad play can make you smile if it's done well enough.
"After Mrs. Rochester" is the stark story of women locked into worlds others created for them, written with an ear for language like the best Victorian novels. Its characters say really ugly things really beautifully.
That beauty is magnified by Goshen College's production, which opened Friday. Director Doug Liechty Caskey, the cast and the crew combined disparate experiments with staging, lighting and sound into a remarkably cohesive package.
It's the "Midwest premiere" of Polly Teale's play, which is about the troubled life of writer Jean Rhys. It's also about Rhys' seminal novel, "Wide Sargasso Sea," which in turn is about a minor character in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre".
Sound confusing? Surprisingly, it's not, because of the production's clarity of creativity.
Three female leads don't just take the stage, they take it over with intensity of word and action. Each plays a different character in a different time and place but they communicate as one.
Lindsay Nance plays an older Rhys, who locked herself in her attic to write and fight back her memories. As the play's narrator, she gets some of the most choice lines and delivers them with the requisite authority, but not the self-consciousness some on-stage narrators have.
Nicole Miazgowicz plays Rhys as a young woman, then known as Ella. She throws herself into the role like Ella throws herself into life. As Ella gets beaten down by those around her, and by her own choices, Miazgowicz's vigor slows into a quiet, well-placed panic.
Cassie Greer is the linchpin as Bertha Mason, the "madwoman in the attic" from "Jane Eyre." In that novel, Mason is locked away by her husband -- the Mr. Rochester that later marries Jane Eye -- after her fits of violence and infidelity.
Here, we see her in a choreographed craziness, laughing, screaming, then muttering things like "If I was a dog, would you do this to me?" and "No past, no future, nothing but the taste of his mouth." Greer gives a frighteningly good physical performance, punctuated by vocal anguish.
The three women are seniors at the college, and one could run out of superlatives describing their acting careers both there and at Goshen's New World Arts.
The rest of the cast turns in solid performances, but their characters are, perhaps purposely, underwritten.
Teale's play compares Rhys' and Mason's lives -- both were born and raised on Caribbean islands and end up in England, living by the whims of well-to-do men.
Teale describes a world where men colonize women for their "beautiful eyes" and then try to change them. When women don't live up to expectations, or don't assimilate willingly, they're cast away -- Bertha to a locked attic, Rhys to a life of self-destruction and dependence.
Ella's mother raises her to worry about fitting in and doing as she's told or else "who do you think will love you?"
One of Ella's lovers "woos" her by saying, "Would you like to belong to me?" Later, he adds, "Love is not about happily ever after. Love is about violence and humiliation. I love you."
Liechty Caskey, the college's head theater professor, provides Teale's words both the freedom and structure they need. He doesn't adorn them with needless action, but instead lets the words drive the characters around the stage. At the same time, he deftly jumps from scene to scene and character to character in a way that makes the story both clear and gripping.
Deserving special note are the designers, who brought every inch of the Umble Center stage alive.
Eric Meyer and Erin Bontrager's set is well-orchestrated chaos -- a cluttered and off-kilter attic is crammed in between formal European parlors. Their lighting is inventive -- a burlesque show is displayed in shadows, while the theater is often lit by actual words written by Rhys.
A haunting score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and others was well-selected and well-placed by Nick Loewen.
The play's a bit long at almost two and a half hours, but that seemed more an issue with the text than the production. Because of mature themes, the play is not recommended for pre-teens.
Does it have a happy ending? I won't say, but it certainly has a memorable ending. The rest is memorable too.
Contact Thomas V. Bona at firstname.lastname@example.org