It’s a delicate thing, reviving an old classic, and giving it new voice onstage. The balance must be struck between remaining faithful to the source material, while at the same time highlighting the similarities between a seemingly bygone era and our own. A fine example of this phenomenon lies within the adaptation of Wives and Daughters, by playwright Jacqueline Firkins. Through the clear voices of the flawed women in this play, Firkins brings to light current issues surrounding oppression, sexism, and fighting for one’s place in society.
Based on the 19th century serial novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, the play follows the story of a young girl, Molly Gibson (Sabrina Vellani) dealing with the tumultuous changes taking place in her life. Her widowed father (Jed Weiss) has remarried with the overbearing Ms. Kirkpatrick (Natalie Backerman), in the hopes that a feminine influence will improve their lives. With Ms. Kirkpatrick comes her daughter, Cynthia (Daria Banu), and a whole host of complications. Soon, the three central women are embroiled in a web of secret affairs, arranged nuptials, and societal jostling.
It is a credit to the cast, as well as to the subtle touch of director Courtenay Dobbie, that the women’s voices do shine the brightest. The two Kirkpatricks are particularly strong. Backerman finds an effusive lightness within the constrains of the ‘wicked stepmother’ archetype, and the result is a character that is likeable and engaging. Likewise, Banu’s Cynthia is a conflicted, overwhelmed young woman, who uses flippancy and delirium as a means of coping with the societal pressure inflicted upon her. She, along with the two bumbling Browning sisters (Shona Struthers and Heidi Damayo), provide the majority of the comic moments, which are genuinely funny and entertaining.
In the midst of all the turmoil, Vellani as Molly totters around the stage, in a doll-like state of consternation. While perhaps not entirely intentional, this does help create the portrait of a girl not entirely in control of her own life. However, while her permanent state of stress is in line with Molly’s experiences, it would have been nice to see Vellani release her tension at some point, particularly as the play does have a happy ending.
The men in the cast hold their heads above water, with varying degrees of success. Louis Lin is charming and oblivious as the bookish botanist Roger Hamley, and finds the heart and simplicity of his character. Meanwhile, Aidan Wright as Cynthia’s domineering ex-lover Preston fades in and out between genuine desire and mustache-twirling villainy. Finally, Weiss is serviceable and consistent in the role of Mr. Gibson, though one can’t help but think there’s so much more to discover under the surface.
The minimalism of the set (designed by Vanka Salim) allows the actors freedom of movement, and the projections (lighting design by Harika Xu), though somewhat unspecific, are beautifully colourful. So too are the eye-pleasing period costumes (designed by Liz Gao), but one wishes there was more variety; the sole costume change occurred halfway through the second act, though the play takes place over the course of several months. Indeed, the playing space has a rather unchanging quality as a whole. Hanging scrims fly in and out, and are rotated, but there is a missed opportunity for the set to mirror the drastic transformations in the lives of the characters.
There were a few technical glitches on Friday night (a scrim bumping into the ground, projections being cut off by shadow), which hopefully will be smoothed out as the run progresses. The skill of the writing, and the talent of the cast, however, are a welcome distraction from the flawed production elements, and the play as a whole is engaging and poignant. Gaskell’s words, with Firkins’ dramaturgy, are intelligent, pointed, and, most importantly, relevant to today’s modern audiences. It is highly encouraged to bring a notebook to jot down some of the more salient quotes during intermission- the play is a a goldmine of memorable lines.
The Theatre & Film Department at UBC has created an engaging show that is firmly rooted in both our time and its own. For that, it should be highly commended. One final question: what was up with the ghost violinist?
Wives and Daughters runs Nov 9-25 at Frederic Wood Theatre.
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