Review: Miss Julie: Freedom Summer

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With the lighter holiday fare gone for another season, it’s time for local theatre companies to start bringing out the big guns. And the opening round goes to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company’s presentation of Miss Julie: Freedom Summer now playing through January 31st.

Actually an adaptation of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie (Froken Julie), Stephen Sachs new version moves us from a grand castle on the estate of a Count in Sweden in 1894, to a large country estate in Greenwood, Mississippi seventy years later.

And were it not enough that Sachs moves us ahead some these seven decades, he sets his new version on July 4th, 1964 which not only happens to be Independence Day but also two days after the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson.

It is against this new backdrop and time that Sachs bases his adaptation and moves from the original’s exploration of class to an exploration of class and race. But where the two versions converge is in the central theme of power. And power is definitely present on the stage here and not only in Sach’s writing.

Kevin Hanchard and Caroline Cave star in the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company's presentation of Miss Julie: Freedom Summer
Kevin Hanchard and Caroline Cave star in the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company’s presentation of Miss Julie: Freedom Summer

The daughter of a judge and plantation owner, Miss Julie (Caroline Cave) spends the Fourth of July dancing and partying with the black workers on the plantation rather than attending the gala with her father. Finding John (Kevin Hanchard) and his fiancé Christine (Raven Dauda) in the kitchen, Miss Julie drunkenly commands John to dance with him.

The attraction between Miss Julie and John is undeniable and it is this mutual attraction, coupled with their desire to be free of the constraints of race and class, which ignites a night of violent passion. But what remains to be seen is if this night of passion can sustain beyond this one night.

Caroline Cave, whom theatre-goers will remember from her triumphant role in The Syringa Tree in 2005 and 2007, gives a spell-binding and, dare-we-say-it, powerful portrayal of Miss Julie as a woman raised as a tomboy by a mentally unstable mother who taught her to hate men. Cave deftly moves her character from the Deep South plantation mistress who demands control, through to her own mental breakdown. After taking stock of her life she quickly realizes that she can no longer blame others and like John, is both afraid to leave and afraid to stay.

While the show indeed has some great performances, where it fell down for me was some of the inconsistencies in the decisions made by Director Sachs (yes, Sachs is responsible for not only the re-writing of the original but also for directing). Without giving away too much plot it, I found myself disappointed that once again any act of violence is much more acceptable and can be much more graphic than any act of sex.

In the end though and despite some powerful performances, as Miss Julie and John both contemplate their next steps in their quickly changing world, one must ask the ultimate question – do we really care what happens to these characters? Unfortunately, we do not, and that is the biggest disappointment of this show.

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