Fair damsels, preying scoundrels and a Hartright hero imitate real theater at Lifeline
“The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, adapted by Robert Kauzlaric, at Lifeline Theatre through Oct. 28. **
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Observing Lifeline Theatre’s adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ melodramatic mystery novel “The Woman in White” put me in mind of Antonio Salieri, that rather ordinary composer at Emperor Josef II’s court whose immortality is assured only through invidious comparison with his younger contemporary in Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Collins doesn’t require so sublime a match-up as Mozart to illuminate his mediocrity. His older English countryman, the very able Charles Dickens, makes the point more than adequately. The mash-up of cross-stitched secrets and over-wrought characters in “The Woman in White” raised two burning questions: Why was I watching this hyperbolic romance, and where did I put my copy of “Great Expectations”?
What we have at Lifeline’s is a cluttered emulation of the Keystone Cops, a great deal of fuss and exclamation signifying, well, very little. In Robert Kauzlaric’s clock-conscious distillation of Collins, we simply aren’t allowed acquaintance enough with any of the characters to warrant real caring. Distressed damsels, black-hearted bad guys and a determined hero spin on and off the stage as if on a carousel.
The woman in white is really two young ladies who look and dress alike, though one is quite wealthy and the other quite mad. Both become pawns in a money-grab by two dastardly men who in their desperation will stop at nothing.
Maggie Scrantom portrays both white-frocked damsels, bringing more personality to the distracted lass than she manages in a rather wan take on the rich girl whose life is about to take a rude turn. Her guardian uncle has signed her over in marriage to the maleficent Sir Percival Glyde, a cardboard target for hisses and rotten tomatoes. At the performance I saw, Robert Kauzlaric, the story adaptor, stood in for James Sparling as Glyde, filling out the contemptible predator to his two-dimensional fullness.
As Glyde’s co-conspirator, the smarmy Count Fosco, Christopher M. Walsh takes even Kauzlaric’s formulaic evil up a notch – but with an oily panache that’s actually engaging. Channeling Sydney Greenstreet to hilarious effect, Walsh milks the role for its last drop of arch sophistication.
The romantic hero and dauntless savior is played by Nicholas Bailey, as Walter Hartright – a name to make Dickens proud.
This upright young chap is a drawing (or as these actors have disciplined themselves to say, drawring) instructor who gets the gig as private tutor to the rich girl in white only to fall grievously in love with her (she’s spoken for) at first sight. Allowing that his assignment trades heavily on despair, shock, revelation and hyperventilating, Bailey gives it an honorably empathic go.
What’s perhaps most interesting, in the midst of all this plotting and swooning, is the prominence of a Modern Woman — the rich girl’s sisterly companion, a wise and resolute spinster played with appealing strength and resilience by Lucy Carapetyan. Engaging as well is Greg Wenz’s plausible, witty performance as an expatriate Italian who owes his life to Hartright and repays that debt with crucial assistance.
I’m not sure what director Elise Kauzlaric might have done to relieve the fraught, jumbled aspect of this dubious venture. Alan Donahue’s multi-Zip Code set becomes little more than a race track on which Kevin D. Gawley’s lighting would direct the wandering, wondering eye. Experience it for yourself if you will; just don’t go with great expectations.
- The literary world of Wilkie Collins: Visit the Wilkie Collins Society website
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Lifeline Theatre’s complete 2012-13 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Walter Hartright (Nicholas Bailey) encounters a woman in white (Maggie Scrantom) who will haunt his life. Descending: Drawing instructor Walter Hartright (Nicholas Bailey) and the white-clad object of his passion (Maggie Scrantom). Worthy opponents square off as Count Fosco (Christopher M. Walsh) greets a sisterly friend of the woman in white (Lucy Carapetyan). The mad incarnation of the woman in white (Maggie Scrantom) seeks answers in a cemetery. (Photos by Suzanne Plunkett)