Tuesday November 21st 2017

“Alias Grace” review by Carol Moore

 Recommended *** Everyone in my book club enjoyed the Rivendell Theatre production of “Alias Grace”, Jennifer Blackmer’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book about an ugly incident in Canadian history.  Grace Marks (a real person) was tried and convicted of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper, on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence.  The production, characterized by strong acting, is very well done.  I did have some problems with the adaptation, however.  3 ½ Spotlights

It all started with an email.  Back in June, I got an email from someone at Rivendell Theatre suggesting that book clubs might be interested in reading “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood (whose book “A Handmaid’s Tale” was just honored at the Emmy Awards).  I forwarded that email to everyone in the Beach House Book Club (that’s Miller beach, by the way) and we decided to read and discuss the book.

Grace Marks’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison, where she was subject to physical and mental abuse.  “Alias Grace”, set in 1859, centers on her life some fifteen years after her conviction.

A young doctor of psychology, Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard), has dreams of opening his own privately funded mental hospital.  He disagrees with the brutal methods of many of his colleagues, believing that in-depth conversations with patients can lead to good results.  He’s eager to talk with Grace Marks (Ashley Neal), because she claims not to remember what happened.  The Governor’s wife, Mrs. Rachel Lavell (Jane Baxter Miller) has arranged for him to meet daily with Grace for as long as he needs. 

Over the course of several meetings, Grace opens up to Simon about her drunken, abusive father – who put her in service when she was 15.  Another maid, Mary Whitney (Ayssette Muñoz) befriended her, showing her the ropes.  Always bubbling over with joy, Mary had plans but when she got pregnant, her lover – who’d promised to marry her – denied that the baby was even his.  Scraping together every cent she could, Mary went to a doctor.  When Grace woke up the following morning, Mary was dead.

Nancy Montgomery (Maura Kidwell), housekeeper to Thomas Kinnear (Drew Vidal) hired Grace as a general maid at Kinnear’s farm.  James McDermott (David Raymond) was hired hand.  Nancy, who’d originally been hired as a maid, wasn’t just Kinnear’s housekeeper, she was his mistress. McDermott, who hated her for ordering him around and ‘putting on airs’, told Grace he was going to kill both Nancy and Kinnear.  Although she didn’t believe he was going to actually kill them, Grace did leave the farm with him, wearing Nancy’s dress.  When they were arrested, she said she couldn’t remember anything from that night.

In her adaptation, Blackmer combined the Governor’s wife and Simon’s landlady into one character, which led to a lively discussion on the drive home.  We thought that was a mistake because these women, who had totally different personalities, both had an important part to play in Simon’s life.  Mrs. Lavell, the mother of two daughters, was very prim, proper and conscious of her position as a leader of society in this provincial town.  She allowed Grace to work as a maid and seamstress in the home she shared with her daughters.  She would never have seduced Simon.  Simon, who was also conscious of his position, would never have raised his voice to her.

Simon’s landlady, on the other hand, was existing in genteel poverty due to the absence of her husband.  She took in a boarder out of desperation.  After she seduced Simon, her unpaid servant, Dora, who is only mentioned once in the play, spread malicious gossip all over town.

In the book, Grace’s friend, Jeremiah (Amro Salama), a ‘gypsy’ peddler, turns up wherever she’s working.  When Dr. Jerome DuPont, a renowned hypnotist from Europe, Grace recognizes him as Jeremiah, although that is never clear to the audience.

Although his work with grace is going well, Simon is unraveling.  His heavy use of laudanum combined with his landlady’s growing hysteria and his mother’s disapproval (expressed in frequent letters) is causing his deterioration.  I thought his behavior was a little too modern.

We all loved the period costumes and the simple yet complete set.

“Alias Grace” runs through October 14th at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue, Chicago.

Running time is approximately 2 hours with an intermission.

Performances are:

Thursdays  8:00 p.m.

Fridays at 8:00 pm

Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 pm.

Performances on September 21st and October 13th are sold out.

Tickets range from $28-$38.  Free parking is available in the Senn High School parking lot (block and a half from theatre off Thorndale Avenue).  FYI (773) 334-7728 or www.rivendelltheatre.org.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Alias Grace”

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