“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is Jay Presson Allen’s adaptation of the celebrated Muriel Spark novel of the same name, and much of the European charm and subtle humor of the original story is well preserved under John Hess’ direction for the Wayward Actors Company.
Miss Brodie (Grace Poganski) is a haughty, charismatic teacher of impressionable young girls at the Marcia Blaine School in 1931 Edinburgh. She is at once a self-serious woman steeped in fine arts, sexual energy and all things Italian (including the support of communism, an outlet for many artists in the 1930s). And it is these things, rather than the traditional school curriculum, that she deeply instills in her girls, which makes them additionally inquisitive and precocious. Her influence ultimately charts the course of their adult lives.
The play tracks the adolescent development of Brodie’s “crème de la crème,” a unique group of precocious girls who idolize and mythologize their professor, in and out of the classroom. Each girl is tagged with a certain set of traits: Sandy (Meghan Logue) is known for tiny eyes and intelligence; Jenny (Mary Stuart Peace) for her sexual glow; Monica (Magdalen Hartman) for fragile emotions and a talent for mathematics; and Mary (Beatrice Harris) for perpetual dimness and culpability.
Within, there are tales of growth, sexual conquest and repression, mystery, methodical betrayal and revelations of heart and spirit. The play reproduces these elements quite well with a brisk dramatic pace, as the viewer quickly develops empathy for and curiosity about the characters on stage. Many of the young girls with limited speaking roles merely take up space on stage and giggle cutely as needed. Sandy, well played by Logue, dominates our attention with a majority of the lines among the girls. The girls usually riff off of Miss Brodie’s flowing, overly ornate rants, and continue to discuss and daydream about their teacher when she leaves the stage.
The sexual intrigue of the play is tied up with two male teachers at Marcia Blaine, the peaceful, submissive music teacher Gordon Lowther (Craig Nolan Highley) and the lusty art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Craig S. Dolgin). The easily disturbed calm and reserve of Highley’s character was well executed (as well as his fine singing voice), but Dolgin’s presentation of Teddy’s swagger was flecked with an overstated smugness.
Rather than using the Edinburgh brogue present in Sparks’ novel, the players opt for an ersatz British accent that usually didn’t sound very British, save for Miss Brodie and Sandy. This belabored linguistic effort often made the dialogue a little choppy and discordant. The acoustics of the MeX Theater were very good, although mainly because the players are usually an arm’s length away. At one point, I could’ve dabbed at the sweat collecting on Teddy Lloyd’s brow.
The quaintness of the play’s first half is more enjoyable than the dour and rather confusing finish, just as in the novel, but the play is no less impressive as a result. There is plenty of fun and intrigue within, and it should make first-time viewers curious about reading the novel.
BY NATHAN THACHER