A certain fascination comes with watching plays become pertinent again, long after when they were written. A case in point is Jay Presson Allen's stage adaptation of Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."
A contemporary undercurrent is very much in evidence in director Gretchen Kanne's staging at Cal State Fullerton. There's more to the ideas behind the play than the surface story of teacher Jean Brodie's corrupting influence on her charges.
She fills her pubescent girls with awe and curiosity as she lets them in on her romantic adventures, from the loss of her first lover in World War I to intimations of her current affair with music teacher Gordon Lowther. Her 1930s faux fascism also leads tragically to the death of one of her students.
But beyond all that, Brodie is a teacher of great dedication, and she instills in her students a delight and familiarity with the worlds of art, literature and music. With the contract that has been taken out on culture in our society, Brodie's visions seem to become very necessary things. Not all her students became sex objects, and the tragic Mary MacGregor was not stable to begin with. They all, however, had learned about beauty.
Brodie must be partly forgiven her sins in the face of her little miracles, particularly in the clear-cut, lucid and entrancing performance of Riley Risso. Risso's overriding humor creates a Brodie who is less destructive than she is all-embracing and misguided and who has a powerful feeling of a teacher's calling at her core.
Kanne lets the story unfold cinematically, and if there is a flaw, it is in the sameness of her rhythms from scene to scene, with few tense highs and somber lows to give the piece form. The form is all in a tapestry of delicate characterizations, their intricate detail and their deep honesty.
Brad Hoffner (as the married art teacher who lusts after Brodie and is rejected) and Trevor Olsen (as the music master she spends her Sunday nights with) are two sides of a coin, both excellent as mirrored images in Brodie's star-glazed eyes. Kathy Blumenfeld is also strong as the starchy, conservative headmistress who puts out her own contract on Brodie's career.
Sacha Vaughn is student Sandy, who finally destroys Brodie and beds the art teacher, and Erin McNally is the grown-up Sandy, now a cloistered nun with a runaway bestseller, who tells Brodie's story. The emotional threads that connect the character at different ages are explicitly and seamless connected in their impeccable performances.
Shauna Daigle is charming and convincing as the student whom Brodie fails to turn into a sexpot, and Misty Reams is often moving as the tragic student who becomes victim to Brodie's oversimplification of the politics of life.
The production is visually impressive in Todd Muffatti's evocative scenic design and Matt Schleicher's gentle, warm lighting design.
* "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," Little Theatre, Cal State Fullerton Performing Arts Center, State College Boulevard and Nutwood Avenue. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends Sunday. $6-$8. (714) 773-3371. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Riley Risso: Jean Brodie
Trevor Olsen: Gordon Lowther
Brad Hoffner: Teddy Lloyd
Erin McNally: Sister Helena
Sacha Vaughn: Sandy
Shauna Daigle: Jenny
Misty Reams: Mary MacGregor
Kathy Blumenfeld: Miss MacKay
A Cal State Fullerton Department of Theatre and Dance production of Jay Presson Allen's drama. Directed by Gretchen Kanne. Scenic design: Todd Muffatti. Lighting design: Matt Schleicher. Costume design: Juan Lopez. Makeup/hair design: Anna Mitchell. Sound design: John R. Fisher. Stage manager: Kristina Kennedy.