In the American South, powerfully entrenched mores can embrace or suffocate, regardless of who you are. An effective setting, then, for the Fountain Theatre’s premiere of Stephen Sachs’ adaptation of “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg’s 1888 classic about the dangerous attraction between a noblewoman and her family’s valet.
Sachs transposes this vivid study of imprisoned souls to 1964 Mississippi, where a showdown is coming between the unwritten laws of the Deep South and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Heady times, but Freedom Summer comes with a price: Even as African Americans register to vote for the first time, authorities are dragging the lakes for the bodies of three missing civil rights workers.
On July 4, Miss Julie (Tracy Middendorf), lily-white plantation daughter and recently jilted fiancee, overheats while dancing in the barn with field hands and comes looking for John (Chuma Gault), her father’s black driver. Never mind that this chauffeur’s more or less promised himself to the family’s cook (Judith Moreland); he and Miss Julie had this date from the beginning, ever since the restless John fell in love with her while both were still children.
Their mutual desire isn’t rooted in hope, however, but rather a fierce anger at the narrow confines into which their world forces them. Miss Julie is drawn to John’s sense of oppression, he, literate and ambitious, to her casual privilege. The single night over which the play takes place is their private act of theater, a series of charged role reversals, as they rehearse possible scenarios: sex, suicide, running away together. Sachs’ adaptation articulates the play’s themes of identity in crisis without ever losing its sultry mood, aided by set designer Travis Gale Lewis’ deceptively cozy Southern kitchen.
At once preposterous and utterly credible, “Miss Julie” requires actors to seize hold of the play’s operatic emotional scale while grounding it in drawing-room (or in this case, kitchen-table) naturalism. Sachs’ ensemble comes close to a perfect balancing act: Middendorf, a capricious seductress in a tight red dress (courtesy of costume designer Shon LeBlanc), dominates the show, veering from imperiousness to despair, improbably turning self-hatred into an aphrodisiac.
Gault, brooding and graceful, is a convincing, if not yet an equal, partner for Middendorf’s intensity. As Christine, Moreland strikes a strong counter note, her watchfulness setting the other characters’ recklessness into stark relief.
As a trio, they lure us into Strindberg’s masterful liebestod, a dark ballad to the hungry forces within that both liberate and destroy.
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 1
Price: $25 to $28
Contact: (323) 663-1525
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes