Part of the time she's unbridled sensuality, dancing triumphantly, exulting in her physical nature like a splendid, graceful animal. At other moments, she crouches in despair in her closed room, shakes convulsively like an invalid painfully unable to stop her tremors. Mr. Rochester identifies her as "Bertha," the woman he married in Jamaica and who went mad shortly thereafter. But in Polly Teale's adaptation of Jane Eyre, she's also Jane's alter ego, an unnamed beauty who longs to be free of her attic cage, to be allowed the free expression of all her capacities, female and human. As stunningly played by Shana Perkins, she's perhaps the best reason to see the fine adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel currently being offered by Gorilla Theatre. But there are others: the across-the-board first-class acting of the nine-member ensemble, Nancy Cole's intelligent directing, Robin Gordon's thrilling choreography. And there's also the pleasure of being reminded that a century and a half ago — 1847, to be exact — feminist Brontë was already aware that women were being psychologically maimed by men's expectations. So if you happen to know a male who thinks women belong at Hooters or at home, you might invite him to come with you to this provocative production. Then buy him a drink and have a pointed chat.
You may be familiar with the story, either from the novel itself or from the 1944 movie with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles: Jane Eyre is an orphan being raised by her mean-spirited aunt. Rebellious and independent-minded, she's banished one day to the "Red Room," a kind of paradigm for all the prisons to which women were once dispatched when they dared to assert themselves. But her spirit isn't broken; when she's sent to the school at Loward, not even the nasty Mr. Brocklehurst can turn her into a pale, subservient robot. After several years at Loward, Jane is hired as a governess at Thornfield, the Gothic mansion owned by the intimidating, Byronic Mr. Rochester. But though Rochester seems destined to marry a certain Blanche, he proposes instead to Jane, who has already fallen in love with him. The marriage is about to be solemnized when (spoiler alert) it's revealed that Rochester is already wed — to the madwoman Bertha he keeps locked away in an attic room. Rochester begs Jane to accept him nonetheless — and Jane must decide what to make of her future. Can she be satisfied living as Rochester's mistress? Or can she find happiness living away from the man she loves?
Now, it would be misleading to describe Jane as a proto-Rosie O'Donnell; instead she's quiet-spoken, well-mannered and often unsure of herself. But what adapter Teale asks us to imagine, in the person of Bertha, is all the energy that Jane sometimes channels but mostly suppresses. So while Jane is tentatively standing up for herself, Bertha is dancing in wild celebration; and when Jane is losing ground, doubting her inspiration, poor Bertha is in mourning, head in hands, an abandoned woman. The existence of this duo — the "real" Jane, usually at ground level, trying to navigate through the confusion of life, and the metaphorical Bertha, usually in the attic, signaling meaning — is never intrusive, never a distraction from Brontë's plot: One comments on the other as in a complex modern dance. There are even some crucial moments when the two women act or speak together, and we're informed that stubborn Jane has actually attained her highest self.
But it's not at all clear that she'll be able to sustain herself there. As played by Katherine Michelle Tanner, Jane is insistently human, credible and vulnerable, as endangered by 19th-century expectations as any "normal" woman would have been. Tanner, who was so stunning as the complexly cerebral heroine of Proof some years ago, takes just the opposite approach in this much different story. Her Jane is careful and even methodical as she learns to play the hand history has dealt her, and she never gives in to anyone's — not even Rochester's — idea of the feminine. Playing against and then with her is Ned Averill-Snell, whose Rochester lacks only a consistent English accent, and who otherwise is ideal as the fast-living former lothario who comes to understand that what he really needs is plain, honest Jane. It's a pleasure to see Averill-Snell back on a Bay area stage: As his performance here reminds us, he's one of our very best actors. Also superb is Emilia Sargent, who lends her considerable talent — and beautiful singing voice — to the part of Blanche Ingram, the woman seemingly "meant" for Rochester; and Gretchen Porro is enchanting as Adele, the French-speaking girl whom Jane is hired to look after. Skillfully rounding out the cast are Ami Sallee Corley, Slake Counts and Harlan B. Work, who as the minister St. John Rivers asks Jane to join him in a loveless marriage. The drama's many short scenes are punctuated by Betsy Goode playing a pithy but eloquent cello; and Keith Arsenault's lighting has a major role in focusing our attention on the multileveled set. That set is the only weak area in the show's design: boxy, gray and generic-looking, it detracts from the period feeling of the drama and bleaches the soul right out of the dialogue. Fortunately, Mick Buck and Jennifer Cunningham's costumes are there to remind us that we are, after all, in that foreign country, the past.
Or perhaps I should say: ahead of our time. What Charlotte Brontë knew, and what adapter Peale reminds us, is that men, even besotted Rochesters, regularly try to force women into dreadfully limited roles and that it takes a formidable spirit to hold out for something more. Jane Eyre is the story of one woman who refuses to forget her true potential. It's a special joy to watch her — in this sturdy Gorilla Theatre production — finally prevail.