The Yellow Wallpaper
Based on story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Though not matching the hype, this grotesque tale is still timeless
|The Mill Theatre presents|
|The Yellow Wallpaper|
Review by Clint May
Whether viewed as a seminal feminist work or as a purely Gothic supernatural story (or both), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 6,000 word tale is utterly chilling. One-hundred and twenty-two years later, it’s still an oft adapted and oft referenced work because of its portrait of female powerlessness in the late 19th century that—and this is the most chilling part—hasn’t really changed as much as we’d have hoped. When you watch Congressional debates about women’s reproductive rights, it’s still old white men doing most of the talking. Gilman’s story remains an ongoing klaxon.
Cloistered by the patronizing force of her husband and the “good” doctor John (Ed Krystosek) for three months in the largest room of a manor house, the nameless woman (Lorelei Sturm) is forbidden any kind of intellectual stimulation. Diagnosed with a post-pregnancy ‘nervous condition’ and ‘hysteria’—so commonly assigned to women who didn’t know how to be quiet and servile in the 19th century—she writes secretly in her journal to stave off the crazed thoughts that begin to fill her head. These thoughts find their locus in the eponymous wallpaper of the room. Her obsession with trying to unravel its hideous mysteries leads to a kind of pareidolia wherein she sees a woman trapped inside the pattern. The turn-of-the-screw* escalation of her manic fixation with this other woman leads her to the (seemingly) only available escape from a suffocating patriarchy.
The Mill Theatre’s latest spin from Lorelei Sturm purports to be ‘movement-based’ and ‘experimental in style.’ Perhaps it meant to be similar to 2008’s critically divisive adaptation from Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble. Had this not been a part of the promotional literature, Biskup’s The Yellow Wallpaper would have been a perfectly accessible interpretation. It doesn’t live up to its own campaign unfortunately. Scenic Designer Eleanor Kahn’s evocative spiderweb of rope encompassing the in-the-round set elevates our expectations of what thrilling experimental movements might occur therein, but those expectations are thwarted. Aside from some rope wrangling, there’s not much in the way of experimental movement here. Casting Daiva Bhandari as both the sister/housekeeper Jennie and the woman in the wallpaper leads to some mild confusion as having Jennie show up at all is not necessary.
[Spoiler alerts in this paragraph] Sturm is faithful to the story right up until the end, which substitutes Gilman’s haunting descent into a psychotic break with all its symbolic implications for a more splashy (implied) black-out suicide. This is too easy an out and one wisely avoided by the story. Having the woman creeping about on all fours—and over her husband’s unconscious form—would have made for a far more frightening final scene than the one we get primed to expect.
Starring as The Woman herself, Sturm believably spins into a dementia that is strangely sympathetic. As her husband, Krystosek is an appropriately bland representation of Victorian manhood, doting on his wife as one would a daughter. Biskup’s pacing and staging make the hour breeze by as we’re born down inexorably by the oppressive weight of a cruelty that masks itself as a kindness.
Semi-autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper was based on Gilman’s own experiences with “rest therapy” commonly prescribed to women in her time. Her boldness is still inspirational, and I wish Sturm’s promises of an adaptation that lives up to that inspiration were realized. Still, this is an above-average take on the classic with a heart of darkness still beating below the floorboards of our contemporary society.
|*A phrase made popular by the Henry James story written six years later.|
The Yellow Wallpaper continues through September 14th at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $15-$20, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheMillTheatre.org. (Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Jaclyn Biskup
behind the scenes
Jaclyn Biskup (director, photos), Mary Ellen Reick (stage manager), Mike Durst (lighting design), Eleanor Kahn (scenic design), Steven Crissey (costume design), Alex Romberg (sound design), Lauren Koch (assistant director, movement consultant), Kris Kontour (technical director), Sarah Stec (graphic design)