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Our current Margaret Atwood moment continues onstage with another tale of women’s disempowerment.
Whether it was by luck or by design, there couldn’t be a better time for Rivendell Theatre Ensemble to be premiering a Margaret Atwood adaptation. In this case, it’s her 1996 historical novel Alias Grace, adapted here by playwright Jennifer Blackmer and directed by Karen Kessler. The success earlier this year (and at this week’s Emmy Awards) of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale—adapted from Atwood’s 1985 novel—has audiences primed and ready for more of her work. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of Canada’s, nay, North America’s greatest living writers. Heck, Sarah Polley and Mary Harron are also adapting Alias Grace into a miniseries for Netflix, due to premiere later this fall.
Clearly, the Atwood-aissance is upon us. Sometimes we can have nice things.
The story is based on a real event: the 1843 conviction of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Irish serving girl, for murdering her landlord and his housekeeper. Also tried and convicted was her fellow servant, James McDermott. But the action of Alias Grace itself takes place later, in 1859. (The play opens with a song, “The Ballad of Grace Marks”, with music by Jane Baxter Miller, that succinctly summarizes the murders.) Grace (Ashley Neal) is technically still imprisoned, although she is currently serving in the household staff of the prison governor’s wife, Mrs. Rachel Lavell (Miller). Grace is mild-mannered and even-tempered, and a doctor, Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard), has been brought in to examine her and to judge her mental state. She claims to remember nothing about the murder—and previous statements from both her and McDermott (David Raymond) leave much doubt as to which one of them instigated the act. Mrs. Lavell and the “committee” of prominent locals with whom she frequently meets hope to have Grace declared sane and to have her paroled. She is taken aback when she learns that Jordan has little interest in determining Mary’s innocence or guilt, and that his method of diagnosing her will involve nothing more than talking to her.
Through these sessions, Grace unfolds the story of her time at the home of one Thomas Kinnear (Drew Vidal), under direction of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Maura Kidwell), with whom he’s having an illicit affair. Later, she goes back even further, telling Jordan about her friend and fellow serving girl Mary Whitney (Ayssette Muñoz), whose name she would later come to use as an alias while working for Kinnear, as well as her friend Jeremiah (Amro Salama), a jovial peddler who also has a knack for ominous warnings. The play complements Grace’s tale with scenes of Jordan slowly crumbling under the financial and professional pressures of his posting. He “takes the edge off” with steady doses of laudanum, which do not help as he becomes more and more obsessed with both Grace and whether or not she was truly responsible for the murders.
Blackmer’s adaptation and Kessler’s production are both somewhat uneven. The play’s dual tracks begin to get muddled in its second act, building up to an ending that is shocking mostly for its abruptness. Without a novelistic level of detail, character motivations become hazy. Moments of fantasy colliding with reality (see: laudanum) are handled awkwardly—some bright-colored lights getting thrown up for effect but little else. Michael Mahlum’s lighting design is, in general, a bit lacking, as is the set by Elvia Moreno. The performances are strong, especially those of Haggard, Neal and Miller; their characters are all vividly drawn, and Neal especially shines a bright, searching light through everyone of Marks’s many facets. Kessler’s direction suffers from a surfeit of mime but she stages it well, letting the story and the characters do the work.
And what a story it is; what people these are. For all the faults listed here, you will likely be gripped by this world where, even when men lack the money or the status to truly hold power, they still hold power over women by virtue of their sex. It’s the kind of world that the theocrats in The Handmaid’s Tale sought to recreate: where women, especially poor ones, were treated like chattel. Even if the blade is slightly dulled, Alias Grace is still sharp enough to cut—and draw real blood.
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. By Jennifer Blackmer. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. Directed by Karen Kessler. With ensemble cast. Running time: two hours; one intermission.