The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Raleigh Little Theatre
Through March 1
In the latest issue of The Believer, Brock Clarke has a piece on the use of artifice and metafiction in Muriel Spark’s novels. In Jay Presson Allen’s theatrical adaptation of Spark’s most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the drama is all about the artifice that goes into the presentation of a charismatic personality. (Allen liked the work enough that she also adapted it to the 1969 Maggie Smith film and a 1978 British miniseries.)
The title character, played by Sandi Sullivan, has an eerie guiding hand over the quartet of students that make up her “Brodie set,” the protégés who will live out her dreams and ambitions. One will grow up to be Sister Helena (Alison Lawrence), a nun who publishes a bestselling book of philosophy that rejects Miss Brodie’s ideals. The scenes with Sister Helena serve as a framework to set up each act, and the bulk of the play is set in the past at the girls’ school. The story’s suspense builds as we try to divine which of the four girls will grow up into Helena, and how her relationship with Miss Brodie ended.
Both Miss Brodie and Sister Helena are guilty of interfering in the other’s life, and yet both, beneath the face they put out to the world, are oddly alike. Miss Brodie is a romantic at heart, expressed through her idealization of Italy and poetry, and of her four favorite students: Sandy (Allison Powell), Jenny (Laura Barone), Monica (Chloe Oliver) and Mary MacGregor (Laura Owens). However, Miss Brodie also idealizes the likes of Mussolini and Franco, and her guidance of her girls involves slowly pushing one into a relationship with Teddy Lloyd (Timothy Corbett), a married artist to whom Miss Brodie has once been attracted. Her obsession with “putting old heads on young shoulders” extends to turning her girls into proxies for her ideas, and while tragedy does result, there is also a sense that Miss Brodie’s more positive influence lives on.
Sullivan does fine work as Miss Brodie; the character has a sense of ironic self-awareness in places that gives some of her monologues an extra punch. Director Haskell Fitz-Simons does an excellent job of establishing a large, constantly shifting set in the limited space on the Raleigh Little Theatre stage, though the production nonetheless feels a mite cramped. There’s plenty of excellent supporting work as well, particularly from Powell and Corbett as the lecherous Lloyd (the fact that the girls are played by real-life high school students while Lloyd is played by the also-age-appropriate Corbett adds an additional layer of creepiness to Miss Brodie’s machinations).
At its heart, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is about how it’s possible to be both a good teacher and a bad leader, and how blindly following the likes of Miss Brodie can be as destructive as following the likes of Franco. An individual’s influence can inspire you to greatness, but you must be willing to assert your own individuality.
On another level, Spark’s tale suggests that even the most carefully constructed artifice can’t obscure the truth at the core.