"The Mill on the Floss" is emotionally stunning and inventively staged. From the first, the atmosphere is supercharged and brimming with ominous portents.
A bridge - really no more than a rough scaffolding - is suspended above the Floss, a river in England. Storm-clouds fill the sky. A woman, hands bound behind her back, is dunked headfirst into the water. Everything seems to be swirling in chaotic circles: angry wisps of clouds, currents of water, the woman's trailing hair.
Next, the audience sees a small girl named Maggie; she seems to have imagined the distressing scene we've just witnessed. She reads aloud from a book:
If a woman is accused of being a witch, she was to be put into the water. If she fights her way back to the surface, that proves she was a witch, and the townspeople can execute her. If she drowns, it establishes her innocence and her good name is restored.
But, the girl asks, "What good would it do her when she was drowned?"
In this production at the Kennedy Center, that image and a few brief sentences distill the essence of George Eliot's 485-page, 19th century novel. This is a classic example of foreshadowing; the audience already knows where the evening's journey will take us. All we can do now is sit back and watch how we get there.
Great Britain's Shared Experience Theatre is known for its original adaptations of famous works of literature. The company's signature style - in which the characters' emotions are made explicit and acted out through movement - is perfectly suited to the vividly colored, emotionally saturated, rain-forest atmosphere of Victorian-era prose.
"The Mill on the Floss" tells the story of Maggie Tulliver and her efforts to survive emotionally in the backwater rural community into which she was born, in an era that had no use for women of her exceptional energy and intelligence.
Maggie runs afoul of her brother, whom she adores, when she forms an attachment to Phillip Wakem, a hunchbacked, sensitive soul who encourages her intellectual interests, and who is the son of her father's sworn enemy. Later, she's ostracized by provincial society when she falls in love with her cousin's fiance.
Boiling a novel this long down to a 165-minute stage production is a Herculean task; adaptor Helen Edmunson doesn't make the mistake of too-scrupulous a fidelity to the book. She combines some incidents and eliminates others. Some important plot twists in the novel are missing from the stage version, while minor occurrences assume an elevated importance. But this staging feels right to the novel's spirit.
The production's chief innovation is its decision to have three actresses play Maggie, each portraying her at a different stage of her life:
There's the young Maggie, all vehement impulse and wild fluctuations of feeling. Pauline Turner delivers a tour de force performance as this wild child; every gesture seems wrenched from the depths of her being, and her voice is almost guttural.
There's the desperately unhappy teen-age Maggie (Jessica Lloyd), who uses religion to suppress her yearnings. And there's the blossoming young woman (Caroline Faber), who battles to reconcile her internal divisions.
Often, all three actresses are on stage at the same time. When Maggie stews about how to respond to a love letter, her internal struggle becomes even more poignant and comic when Turner and Lloyd literally tug an increasingly disheveled Faber back and forth between them.
The production often is inspired, but it's not faultless; directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale sometimes equate emotional intensity with shouting. This creates a strident tone that undercuts some characters' complexity. For instance, one of Maggie's aunts comes across as so loathsome and unremittingly judgmental that the audience is unprepared when she comes to the family's aid during a crisis, since we've spied no signs of humanity in her previously.
But that's a relatively minor flaw in a production that overall is remarkably clear-sighted. The staging's unifying image (the witch being dunked in the river) even manages to make sense of the novel's problematic ending.
Without giving away too much of the plot, let's just say that at the climax, Maggie finally gets dumped in the river for real.
Will she float, or drown?
'Mill on the Floss'
Where: The Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. Through June 10.