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Civic Theatre's 'Jean Brodie' Another Sparkler

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Civic Theatre’s ‘Jean Brodie’ Another Sparkler

By Norman Gibson

(News Drama Critic)

In a rare vintage season in which success has followed success, the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is covered with more luster in the production of Jay Presson Allen’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” directed by Nathan Gamer for presentation in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

About the only criticism that can be made of the production is that a lot of it is upstage, which forces the audience to reach further for emotional contact with the actors and actresses, but there is no getting away from the surging power which builds from climax to climax.

Nancy Heusel’s Jean Brodie, the progressive teacher in the 1930s who eventually must come to grips with whether her teachings are the undoing of her students and herself, is all encompassing.

Mrs. Heusel is at her best as the master craftsman, the divine magician, in uncovering one-by-one all the facets of the Jean Brodie character, which at first seems to be a dedicated woman who is somewhat eccentric and careless in handling her personal life but who frees the girls in her class from the role of being sponges for knowledge to a probing for their potentialities.

In some indescribable way, Mrs. Heusel’s teacher falters in her mission to teach her charges how to find art, beauty, love and commitment and Miss Jean Brodie, believing she is in her prime, is unable to find any rock-like values on which to lean.

As Mrs. Heusel sits in the office of the head of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, Patricia Reilly, who plays the role of straight-laced headmistress of the conservative school, gets to play some comedy in reading a letter which has been put together by two of Miss Brodie’s pupils. Mrs. Reilly and Mrs. Heusel are so perfectly suited for their roles that each one sends the other and the drama to new heights with each of their encounters.

One of the wonders of the Garner staging is that he has mixed actresses as young as eight in with adults and inexperienced actors with those of much experience, but the whole production has one high level of excellence, and everyone seems to be doing his best at every moment.

Gerald Janesick’s set design contains all of the twisting, evolving drama within one impressionistic set, which makes for interesting formations when the girls march, singing, to their desks. Even when only two characters are involved, their entrances seem to take on dramatic importance with the walking through areas and space.

A quality performance is given by William J. Cross in the role of the Edinburgh senior school art master who has a wife and six children, middle aged hangups and memories of an affair with Miss Brodie which won’t go away although the fires cool.

Although the words of their lines are not always clear, the performances given by Leo F. McNamara and Fred Beutler are so clearly projected and so sharply etched that perhaps the words are superfluous. McNamara plays the be-speckled music teacher who currently shares the sheets with the free-form Miss Brodie and Beutler is the slow-moving custodian, who shuffles through a scene or two.

Performances which enhance the proceedings are turned in by Jennifer McLogan performing a solo as the student Miss Brodie sees as an actress, Linda Baillif as the girl with “animal magnetism,” Erica Pelz as the loner destined for tragedy, and Lynn Macil as the intellectual, dependable student who poses nude for the artist and finds he has painted her skin with the texture of the skin of the unforgettable Miss Brodie.

As the school girls who range in age from eight through 14 there are Lori Gould, Beth Dunstan, Janet Fancher, Alice Greenberg, Kirsten Holbrook, Valerie Jelinek, Angie Jones, Kathy Kirk, Cathy Lamkin, Linda Scarpuzza, Natalie Sylvest and Wendy Wolfe, who appear in the costumes of Candace Garner under the lighting designs by Jim Morgenstern.

Further performances are at 8 p.m today through Saturday.