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After Mrs. Rochester

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Late in what can only be described as a very turbulent life, novelist Jean Rhys (born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams on the island of Dominica) wrote the modern classic Wide Sargasso Sea, a fantasia of sorts on characters and events in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

You know what? I never read either of them ... mostly because I've dedicated my life to seeing every play ever written. And one of those plays, After Mrs. Rochester, is now getting its Pittsburgh premiere thanks to Quantum Theatre.

The script, by British playwright Polly Teale, is, in fact, a fantasia of sorts on characters and events in Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea and the life of Rhys herself. Here's the flow chart as I understand it. In Jane Eyre, the brooding lord of the manor, Mr. Rochester, has imprisoned, in the attic, his wife, a woman he met and married in Dominica. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys imagines what this woman's life was before she met Rochester and how his cruelty drove her to insanity. In After Mrs. Rochester, Teale portrays Rhys' own insanity as if it were a person: a crazy woman from the island who lives upstairs inside Rhys' head. It's an interesting idea and Teale is very clever in how she flips us back and forth between Eyre, Sargasso and Rhys' life, hop-skipping through time and space with a great deal of flair.

But it's also true that you're spending the evening with three extremely unpleasant people played by three different actresses: Rhys as a spectacularly screwed-up adult; Rhys as a miserable young girl growing into a miserable young woman; and the crazy lady from the books and Rhys' mind. According to Teale, Rhys spent her life battling herself, and this play is a series of reports from this never-changing front. By the second act the characters really don't have any place to go, dramatically, so they just stand there shrieking at each other. Of course, that may be Teale's point. I hate plays that try to trick mental illness up into some precious poetic construct, and Teale makes sure there's nothing pleasant about the hell Rhys is enduring. To that end, however, I did feel like I'd rather slip Rhys some Thorazine than watch her continual mental implosions.

Quantum's design team picks up on Teale's fractured storytelling, and creates an extremely cluttered world inside the decayed Carnegie Library Music Hall in Braddock. The number of props and costumes in this show is nothing short of breathtaking; to be honest, I'm not sure what half of all that stuff was for ... outside of putting the actors at physical risk from time to time.

Rodger Henderson directs, creating some stunning stage pictures; with a script as one-note as this I don't think he can be faulted for the lack of emotional variety. Which can also be said of the performances by Robin Walsh, as the crazy woman, and Mikelle Johnson, as Rhys-the-younger. The downside to Teale's having broken her lead character into three separate entities is that each, obviously, is not a whole person, and consequently can have no emotional journey. Walsh and Johnson attack with gusto, but can only play what the writer's given them.

Karla Boos, as the older Rhys, faces the same problem, but her character is the least outwardly unpleasant of the three, and Boos plays her with a hypnotic precision and economy of purpose. Her stillness, at times, is electrifying.

After Mrs. Rochester continues through Oct. 22. Carnegie Library Music Hall, 419 Library St., Braddock. 412-394-3353

Dinner With Friends

It may not sound like praise, but the Little Lake Theatre production of Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends didn't make me want to shoot myself.

And that is praise indeed, because the last time I saw this play I did want to shoot myself. And not because it's such a horrible play. At times Margulies can be a funny, insightful writer. But most of the time he's not, really. And almost all of the time, this play -- concerning two married couples shaken to their core when one of the couples divorce -- is about, is only about, suburban infidelity. And the reason it made me want to shoot myself is because it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Nations rise and fall, life is filled with horrible events, people live and die with such misery ... and they're giving out Pulitzers to plays about four of the whitest people you ever met, kvelling because -- surprise! -- a middle-aged man sleeps with someone who isn't his wife.

Maybe the shock of the award has worn off, and that's why I didn't want to kill myself at this viewing. Or maybe because Sunny Disney Fitchett has directed a simple, unaffected production, drawing straightforward, honest performances from Art DeConciliis, Rachel Downie, Jennifer Sinatra and Mark Cox. But whatever reason, Little Lake's production has given me the will to go on. I'll leave it to you to decide whether they should be commended.

Dinner With Friends continues through Oct. 14. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Dr. (off Route 19), McMurray. 724-745-6300

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