Sunday, September 3, 2023

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" by Dark & Stormy Productions at Gremlin Theatre

At first glance, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seems like an odd choice for Dark & Stormy Productions, a company that over the last ten years or so has made a name for themselves doing modern, small cast, one act, darkly funny or darkly disturbing plays in non-traditional locations. This is a period piece (set primarily in the '30s), premiered in 1966 (based on the 1961 novel), two acts and two and a half hours long, with a cast of ten, presented in the traditional thrust space at Gremlin Theatre (D&S gave up their NE Minneapolis studio space during the pandemic). But it's still dark, more on the disturbing than funny side. And the title role is a good one for founder and Artistic Director Sara Marsh - a complicated woman that I'm never sure if I'm supposed to like or not. Upon closer examination, this production, which also features some great performances by current or recent U of M theater students, some making their professional debuts, fits right in with Dark & Stormy's repertoire of smart, intriguing, well done, and yes, dark plays. You can see it at Gremlin Theater in St. Paul (next door to Lake Monster Brewing with daily food trucks) through September 17.

The play is structured as a memory play, the memories being that of a Scottish nun who recently wrote a best-selling book, prompting an American reporter to visit her at the convent. She tells him that her book was inspired by a teacher she had in her youth, and we then see her story play out, with her sometimes watching on the sidelines. Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a private girls' school in Scotland in the '30s. But not just any teacher, she's a special teacher with her own ideas of what should be taught and how it should be taught. She focuses less on the prescribed curriculum and more on imbuing "her" girls with a sense of confidence and independence. She takes them on outings to museums, theaters, and the countryside, and favors telling romanticized stories from her past over teaching them history from books. But it's not all as rosy as it sounds. She also uses her students as pawns in her romantic entanglements with two fellow teachers, one a married man. As the girls progress through school, they remain under Miss Brodie's influence, for better or worse. She has left her mark on all of them, and some of them will pay the price.*

Allison Vincent, who's known more for comedy and physical theater, directs this drama and creates that consistent "dark an stormy" tone, with perhaps a few moments of lightness in the playfulness of the girls. They've wisely cast actual students (or recent grads) to play these students, and all four of these young women (Shayla Corteau, Jennifer Donovan, Cece Roth, and Alice Wenzlow) are so natural and believable as these precocious elementary students who grow into teenagers throughout the course of the play. Shayla has the biggest role as Sandy, a special friend of Miss Brodie (and the artist Mr. Lloyd, played by Peter Christian Hansen), more than holding her own opposite these #TCTheater vets. Sara Marsh is a great Jean Brodie, as charming and effervescent as she is devious and manipulative, so that I alternately feel sorry for her and am outraged at how she treats these "little girls." The strong cast also includes Katie Willer as the stern principal of the school at odds with Miss Brodie, Alex Galick as her charmingly awkward suitor, and in the framing story - Jackson Whitman as the American reporter and the always great Emily Grodzik as the nun who once was one of these girls. And the entire cast speaks in lovely Scottish accents (except Jackson, who sports a Southern drawl), thanks to dialect coach Keely Wolter.

Miss Brodie (Sara Marsh) and her girls (photo by Bryce Johnson)
The square performance space, with audience on three sides, is mostly bare and framed by columns that add a solemn air. Vintage desks, a bench or two, and an artist's easel are rolled on and off stage when needed. I also love the detail of real food at the picnic, which the girls nibble at and Alex dutifully consumes. The girls are dressed in school uniforms - red jackets with Scottish plaid skirts, with the adults in proper period costumes, a bit more colorful dresses for Miss Brodie (scenic and props design by Rick Polenek, costume design by Sara Marsh).

Miss Brodie says, "give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life." That sounds a little bit culty, and not the most healthy relationship between a teacher and a student. A good teacher teaches students to think for themselves, not to do anything to please their teacher, as she lives vicariously through them. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a bit of a cautionary tale, and a fascinating look at a complicated woman, as always well done by Dark and Stormy Productions.

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of Theatre in the Round's 2015 production.