Friends, it has always fascinated me at great length just how much power a skilled director can wield when given the reigns to a script. They have no legal obligation to keep any of the stage directions that the playwright wrote into the story, and therefore, only have to maintain the dialogue. Due to this legal loop hole, the art of directing can truly abound. Particularly of note in my recent memory, there is the Broadway revival of Oklahoma! that absolutely flipped the original intent of Rodgers and Hammerstein (its authors) on its head by turning the production into a dark, sexually charged story with a revolutionized version of the score done entirely with bluegrass orchestrations. There’s also the fantastic Bartlett Sher-directed revival of My Fair Lady to consider where the musical ended with Eliza (finally) choosing to leave Henry Higgins and maintain her dignity in the process. All this to say, the director of a production is able to have massive consequences on a show. This last Friday night I was able to see Miss Julie, as produced by The College of Southern Maryland, where this very concept was displayed with absolute clarity.
“Hornsby imbued Miss Julie with an emotional intensity that rattled me. I found myself watching her facial expressions any chance that I got throughout the play because of the intriguing depth that they held.”
Miss Julie is composed of a fairly simple set up: the story takes place over the course of a single night during Midsummer in Sweden during which the daughter of a count, Miss Julie, begins a romantic entanglement with her father’s valet Jean that comes to have dire consequences by the end of the play. This play does deal with some particularly heavy themes with the way that women were treated in society during the late 1800s (when the play was written) by men. During the course of the show, there are power struggles between Miss Julie who is an aristocratic, raised feminist, woman and Jean, a well-learned , lower-class man who works for Miss Julie’s father. What’s interesting about their exchanges as the story unfolds is that in some regards, because of his sex, Jean clearly holds more power than Miss Julie (which is utterly absurd to this woman. Have I mentioned how grateful I am that I was born in the late 20th century?). By the end of the play, you find yourself absolutely despairing over how futilely powerless Miss Julie, the daughter of a count, is when stacked up against any man solely because of her sex.
Here’s where the power of direction, as mentioned earlier in this review, comes into play: the author, August Strindberg, abhorred the character of Miss Julie because she was a woman. He wouldn’t have wanted the audience to feel any sort of pity for her, much less sympathy. Instead, he would have probably wanted the audience to feel vindicated when Miss Julie meets her tragic end. However, the director of this production, AnnMarie T. Saunders is determined to make sure that Miss Julie’s character is conveyed in such a way that you are torn to pieces at her demise. She does this by transforming Miss Julie from a two-dimensional stereotype into a full-fledged human being that can feel everything that is done to her. Saunders also has a wonderful skill for creating truly beautiful pictures throughout the play (my favorite moment was near the end where you could see the reflection of Jean in the glass of the door. The look on his face broke my heart) that keep you completely engaged in the story the entire time.
Speaking of Miss Julie herself, she was hearteningly played by Melody Hornsby. Hornsby imbued Miss Julie with an emotional intensity that rattled me. I found myself watching her facial expressions any chance that I got throughout the play because of the intriguing depth that they held. It was evident that Hornsby was one hundred percent present as an actress throughout each scene, even when she did not have a lot of lines during an interchange. Getting to witness Hornsby’s character descend into irrevocable despair was truly a sight to behold. I look forward to seeing her develop her skill as an actress in whatever future productions she is cast in.
On the technical side of things, I enjoyed the simplicity of the set, as designed by Erik Braun. It was a basic kitchen space that was time period appropriate for the setting of the play. Careful attention to detail was evident with choices to only include copper and cast-iron pots on the stove, instead of having nonstick pans which did not yet exist in the 1800s (you laugh, but I have seen productions where they have made ridiculous snafus like that). Along with the realism of the props, I liked the subtle Christmas/winter decorations with the greenery hung in two places on the set that helped to further add context to the show’s setting.
Lighting, as designed by Dylan Wojciechowski, did a good job of utilizing a pseudo spotlight at the front of the stage to help create the aforementioned beautiful pictures of this play. I also appreciated how the tone of the lighting subtly transformed once it was clear that morning had arrived. Attention to these small details really aids in rounding out a production. Most theatregoers wouldn’t notice if it’s there, but when it’s not, it’s sorely missed.
The sound was designed by Kenneth L. Waters, Jr. and, for the most part, was well done. The actors projected wonderfully and had fantastic diction that allowed me to understand every word of this beautifully penned script. Use of sound effects for the ringing of a bell and such were well executed.
So, as this point, friends, you’re of course wondering who I would recommend this show for. While this show deals with some rather unpleasant realities of how women have been historically treated by men through the ages, I believe that the director deals with this subject with such a respect and grace that it would be palatable for most adults. I think the exception would be if someone were to be first or second hand dealing with the issue of suicide since this play does handle this theme. However, this is probably a show to skip with the kiddos. That being said, this show is the beauty of Shakespeare’s flowery and thought-provoking style, but without the hullabaloo that can be Shakespeare (and with a fantastic history lesson to boot! The only way we do not repeat or propagate horrors of our history is by being aware of them).
Approximate Run Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes with no intermission
Content Advisory: 13+ due to sexual innuendo, mild language, and suicidal themes
Miss Julie played at the Fine Arts Center of the La Plata Campus of the College of Southern Maryland from October 11th-19th. The show has now come to the end of its run. For more information, please visit their website here.