To the Lighthouse
Adapted by Adele Edling Shank
From the novel by Virginia Woolf
Directed by Les Waters
February 23-March 25, 2007
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
photo by Cheshire Dave
Ephemeral, incandescent, light as a butterfly wing – it’s hard to find the right words to describe the world premiere of Adele Edling Shank’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. That this seminal novel comes to the stage at all is an astonishment. Deliberately penned as an antidote to the plot-driven novel of the Victorian era -- where first one thing happens and then another and it’s all neatly sewn up at the end – Woolf has her characters reveal their innermost thoughts (which are frequently at odds with their actions) in the free-flowing interior monologues that gave birth to the term “stream of consciousness.
Further, it’s about time. Time almost is a character in the book. How do you indicate this aside from holding up a sign that says: “Ten years later”? (sometimes effective in the movies but difficult to swallow in the theater). The answer is with music and projected slides and moving images and the occasional entrance of a servant to put a dust cover over a sofa or a pail under a leak in the roof. Nearly the entire second act is without dialogue, progressing through Paul Dresher’s wonderful score (played live, by the excellent 7th Avenue String Quartet) as we gaze at images of raindrops, old photos, falling leaves, a shelf of books, a turbulent sea that threatens to burst out of the screen and engulf us all. Composer Dresher and video designer Jedediah Ike have crafted a veritable symphony of time here (you can hear the ticking of a clock in the strings if you listen closely). The only jarring note is in the lighting (Matt Frey) when an insistent strobe keeps punctuating the scene – evidently the lighthouse light -- to blinding effect.
When the characters – those that remain after death, war and marriage have pruned the ranks of the extended Ramsay family – do speak, it often is in the form of a sung aria, turning the whole thing into a kind of opera that reminds one of Sondheim. If you open yourself up to it, it is an almost overwhelming experience. Those who prefer a linear progression of events, with everything spelled out for them, may think otherwise.
The first act is more conventional. The setting is the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland, a wild, rugged place where all you really can count on is almost constant rain and the occasional shipwreck. The characters are the rather eccentric Ramsay family, Mr. Ramsay (Edmond Genest), a philosopher who made a big splash with his first book and hasn’t done much since except walk around quoting poetry and bullying his children; his beautiful, long-suffering wife (Monique Fowler) who is the glue that holds everything together, and their seven offspring – of whom we only see two. They exist in a kind of genteel poverty but are not too poor to host a number of friends and neighbors.
One is William Bankes (Jarion Monroe), a kindly widower and once – perhaps still – an ardent admirer of his hostess. Another is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried painter, through whose eyes we see much of whatever action there is. Rebecca Watson is lovely in the role, tentative in the shadow of the elegant, capable and, above all married Mrs. Ramsay, confident and more her own person after the lady of the house is gone. Other guests include a young couple (Lauren Grace and Paul Rayley), the objects of Mrs. Ramsay’s romantic machinations, and a disagreeable young scholar (David Mendelsohn).
But the one to keep your eye on is Mrs. R., gliding from room to room, soothing the ruffled feathers of her children, placating her husband, knitting stockings and plotting romantic attachments all at the same time. Fowler, who comes to Berkeley from Broadway as does Genest, is good in the role but never as good as when she is voicing her inner thoughts. “But what have I done with my life?” she asks as she continues living it, day to day. The introspection must be contagious because, at the heart of Act One is a dinner party during which practically everybody does the same thing. It can be quite hilarious, as they rage quietly behind their party faces, and heartbreaking too.
Act Two belongs to Genest (after the music and video projections). Ten years have passed, his wife is dead and his older children either married or gone to war. The two that are left are rebellious and angry. Now the formerly irascible old man must reconcile with them as they sit in a boat headed to the lighthouse of the title. On the beach, Lily, the artist, works out her own problems on canvas. And the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay floats across the stage as she permeates the fabric of all their lives.
So, what’s it all about? Life, art, love, death, change, time, thought – just about everything. Reading Woolf in college, the big question was “What does the lighthouse represent?” All these years later, experiencing this unusual piece of theater, the answer occurs that the lighthouse is whatever it means to you.