“If you want romance, go to Broadway,” audience members are told, directly, in “Wuthering Heights,” a boldly reimagined and uncompromisingly dark stage adaptation of the classic Emily Brontë novel “Wuthering Heights” that is now being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. The adaptation and direction is by Emma Rice of the British theater company Wise Children, and debuted in 2021; this production is part of a Wise Children tour.
There are other irreverent moments in the show. “How does anyone expect you to follow this?” proclaims a minor character, Mr. Lockwood (Sam Archer), of the play’s dauntingly large cast of characters. “Everybody’s related (and) all the names sound the same.”
Yet, to put it mildly, Rice does not establish a consistent tone regarding the source material. At times, she seems to have a playful, mocking distance from it, and at others, she embraces Brontë’s melodrama wholeheartedly. Despite the “If you want romance, go to Broadway” line, there is romance here, though not of the happily-ever-after kind.
Rice uses music, dance and puppetry at various times in the show. The music (by Ian Ross, and played by an onstage band) is lovely — charmingly folksy at times, appropriately stately when that is called for, and sung uniformly well by the show’s cast. The puppetry (directed by John Leader) is imaginative and well-executed. And the dancing is energetic: The blustery Yorkshire Moors are personified as kind of Greek chorus that moves around the stage like a whirlwind, with the dynamic Jordan Laviniere playing the lead Moor. Rice comes up with some other other creative ways, as well, to portray the Yorkshire winds — a symbol of the unseen forces driving the characters’ tormented lives.
Yet for all the skill that is on display, I found this production easier to admire than to fully love.
The main story line, of course, has to do with the ill-fated attraction between Heathcliff (Ricardo Castro) and Catherine (Eleanor Sutton), who were raised together after Heathcliff was adopted by the wealthy Earnshaw family. They are soulmates but destined to never be together: Catherine Hinton marries the proper gentleman Edgar Linton (also played by Sam Archer) and Heathcliff retaliates by wedding Edgar’s immature, almost childlike sister, Isabella (Georgia Bruce).
But the main two characters don’t seem tragic. Sometimes, they don’t even seem human, and only rarely are they not off-putting. Heathcliff comes off, more often than not, as a snarling, hissable villain who is brutal to Isabella and others. And the defiant Catherine, though she has a couple of show-stopping songs to sing, is often portrayed as a petulant goofball. As I watched, I never yearned for them to be together; I felt they were lucky to be able to stay apart.
T.J. Holmes provides some great comic relief as Dr. Kenneth, who somehow manages to remain jovial even though his patients keep dying with alarming regularity. And after Isabella dies, Bruce re-emerges as Isabella and Heathcliff’s strange, mewling son, Little Linton, who enters into a short-lived marriage to Catherine and Edgar’s daughter, Cathy (Stephanie Hockley).
Mr. Lockwood was right: Unless you are intimately familiar with the original novel, your head will spin trying to keep this all straight.
Rice offers some warmth and hope and the end of the tale, as did Brontë. But it’s the uncompromising fierceness of all that came before — plus the occasional touches of unpredictable, daring humor — that will stay with you.
The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” through March 12. Visit McCarter.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.