Playwright: Christina Calvit from Charlotte Bronte's novel. At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: 773-761-4477; www.lifelinetheatre.com; $40. Runs through: Oct. 26
The novels of the Bronte sisters have served as a touchstone for Lifeline Theatre for much of its history. The troupe first presented Jane Eyre almost 25 years ago, repeated it as the millennium turned and now approaches it a third time with the same experienced adapter ( Christina Calvit ) and director ( Dorothy Milne ). No mere revisitingthis Jane Eyre is a complete reinvention.
The last production was a sweeping romance with fulsome period costumes, emphasizing the slowly percolating love between Jane and the brooding lord of the manor, Edward Rochester. The complexities of plot find her at first too proud and aware of her lowly position to expose herself to his love while he, in turn, disfigured by fire, does not wish her to pity him.
In Calvit's fresh take, love is the least of the problems. Jane and Rochester almost too quickly embrace the attraction and passion they seem fated to share, both before the devastating fire and afterwards. Allowing themselves to be in love is not the issue this time, but I'm not certain what is, so unexpectedly different and swift-moving is this telling. Figures from Jane's past follow her about in ghost-like fashion, perhaps to suggest the baggage we must leave behind to achieve maturity and happiness. The tone is Gothic rather than Romantic: life is dark until something brightens it, not the other way around.
This spare, stripped-down production features costumes ( Jana Anderson ) that only hint at the early 19th-century setting while also suggesting modern times. The semi-abstract scenic design ( William Boles ) features wooden beams and posts that slide or tilt into various configurations, like the ribs of an old barn without the walls. Lighting and projections ( Kevin D. Gawley ) do the rest. Calvit's adaptation cuts few characters but definitely short-hands the incidents. One scarcely understands that Jane is sent at 10 to a boarding school before she is 18 and engaged as governess at Mr. Rochester's Thornfield Hall.
To say it is lean, peculiar and not open to obvious interpretation is not to say it doesn't work. It works very well, in fact, in part because those familiar with Jane Eyre will fill in the blanks themselves, and in part because it sets its own terms from the get-go. Leading lady Anu Bhatt crisply holds attention, conveying Jane's moods with eyes darting or downturned as required, and sometimes somehow both at once. John Henry Roberts' Rochester is not the usual dark, athletic figure but fare and lithe, and yet he easily conveys Rochester's unsettled heart and edginess. As is necessary, his Rochester is a man you wouldn't wish to cross. This Jane Eyre suggests the dangers of the contemporary world, with ignited passions among those dangers.