It’s intended to catch the eye: that massive pane of glass, perfectly centered in the square white wall at back of Matthew Adelson’s austere set for Miss Julie. Beneath its surface, in a shallow, recessed chamber illuminated as if by fluorescent light, three white ramps hang at different heights from top to bottom, veering downward from the sides.

Scandinavian pachinko, perhaps: some cool, spare Nordic version of the Japanese pinball game?

Not quite. For one thing, nothing’s about to bounce, hop or skitter with mechanical delight through this maze, since the subtleties–the baffles of symmetrical pins to divert and randomize the inevitable downward path–are missing. No, plummet is the word, instead: Anything here will simply fall, down three oblique angles, before disappearing forever. It’s how the thing is built. Apparently, that’s the way the game is played.

The other visual metaphor here writ large in set design? Those massive, white, freestanding walls to left and right, both placed more than a quarter of the way across the stage of Peace College’s Leggett Theater. They encroach upon the room–the kitchen of a European count’s estate–like the jaws of an immaculate vise, underlining the pressures on its inhabitants from outside.

But if you’re giving Adelson full credit for one of the most accomplished set designs of the season, you’re probably also crossing your fingers for the rest of the production at this point. After all, designers have cornered productions in this space before: Three years ago, Sonja Drum’s oversized evil eye of a set simply stared down three stage veterans and their audience in a uniquely hellish version of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf.

Lesson learned: The audience is always comparing scale across the elements of a show. Designs this substantive demand acting and direction as robust. Fortunately, the news is good from this Burning Coal production. More on that in a moment.

In playwright August Strindberg’s world, the title character is a headstrong, headless young woman from the distinct upper class of a stratified and conservative Swedish culture in the 1880s. It is Midsummer’s Eve as the play opens, a festival night with an emphasis on misrule and inverted social order that recalls in part a modern-day Carnival or Feast of Fools. Given the sometimes not-so-submerged resentments of the servant class, it is a particularly dangerous night for a naïve woman of privilege to pull hard at the already badly fraying threads of caste.

But pull Miss Julie does, at times with near-sadistic pleasure, on the imagined leash of her father’s handsome servant, Jean. With the count away, she’s the temporary lady of the house. She also has a score to settle with men after a recent, bitterly broken engagement to be married.

Julie demonstrates that she has power. She can order Jean to dance with her, raise a toast and kiss the top of her feet….

But what awaits her on the other side of the barricades of societal position? And after pulling down a social order–or pulling herself down from it–will she be able to rise up it again if it’s needed the morning after?

Under Rebecca Holderness’ direction, Adam Twiss is crisp, correct–and ever calculating–as manservant Jean, and Jessica Kaye is a fitting match as a foolish title character who believes she’s controlling people and events until a servant manipulates them out from under her.

Actually, make that “servants,” since Gabrieal Griego is gratifyingly three-dimensional here as Kristin, Julie’s no-nonsense maid–and Jean’s no-nonsense fiancée.

Additionally, something must be said here about the uncanny feeling one gets as an audience member seeing acting this good up close. Patrons who’ve been to Leggett Theater already know it’s an intimate space, basically a black box with benefits. That intimacy aids this show immensely. The energy coming off the stage from Griego, Twiss and Kaye was a palpable thing, a current that energized the room with tension, attraction and dread–until, that is, the final moments of the show.

Particularly given its early achievements in design, acting and direction, I’m still puzzling over the closing sequence on the night I saw Miss Julie.

Did Holderness deliberately choose to foreground Strindberg’s shortcomings as a psychoanalyst at the last? Was that why the title character’s closing, ruinous revelations seemed so ham-handed, to an extent unnoticed in earlier regional productions? Given Kelsey Egan and Jack Lienke’s appreciation for almost Bartok-like controlled dissonances earlier on, did their adaptation just go tone-deaf by comparison in the final passages? Or was it Kaye’s character essay of this landmark figure that remained a work unfinished on the night we were in the room?

Questions like these, as well as the caliber of work that came before, make me want to see this production again. Serious students of the drama–and anyone else up for something a bit more challenging than the average night of theater around here–should make plans to join me.

Miss Julie
* * * *
Burning Coal Theatre
Through May 28

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