- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Those who remember D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” only for the sexy parts may be surprised to realize there is a lot more to the novel. Once banned for its frank depiction of sexuality and sensuality, “Lady Chatterley” is, at heart, about class constrictions and the often suffocating bonds of motherly and spousal love.

Mr. Lawrence’s meditative and passionate novel deals with the benumbed and deracinated England after World War I and the emergence of “a new man” (personified by Lady Chatterley’s lover, the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors) who not only transcends class, but embodies both the masculine and feminine ideals — someone who is both rough and tender.

The Washington Shakespeare Theatre’s splendid production of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” brings out all these aspects, and, under the direction of John Vreeke, imbues them with an intriguing mix of ruefulness, repression and unbridled sensuality.

The adaptation was commissioned originally by the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, which performs staged readings, with the cast reciting and acting out verbatim passages from novels. When it works — as it does here, beautifully — this highly stylized approach to adaptation appeals to audiences who love drama and the written word. The literary flavor of the book is preserved, yet the evening itself is thrillingly theatrical.

As high-minded as Mr. Lawrence’s novel and this staging can be, let’s be frank. Nobody is going to schlep to the outer edges of Crystal City in the middle of summer to explore Mr. Lawrence’s ideas about class, industry and marriage. That’s like saying you read Playboy for the articles.

Most of us are going to check out “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in the hopes of seeing something steamy. I’m happy to report that the production appeals to the libido as much as it does the intellect. The love scenes between Constance Chatterley (Michelle Shupe) and Oliver Mellors (Hugh T. Owen) pulsate with lushness and heat and awakening senses.

Onstage portrayals of sex can be awkward and false when there is no chemistry between the actors, but Miss Shupe and Mr. Owen throw themselves into the role of lovers, and every encounter is palpably believable. The sex is stylized and tasteful, almost choreographed like ballet. The production’s only nude scene is not what you would expect. Instead, it’s a moment when Constance and Oliver peel off their clothes and run around in the rain, as happy and unfettered and curious as children.

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” reflects a woman’s point of view, as Constance eschews the life of the mind for living fully in her body. So there is nothing smutty or degrading about the sexuality in the novel or in the play — instead, there is a sense of discovery and naturalness.

Perhaps that is because, until she met Oliver Mellors, Constance’s world was one of thought and talk. It was the masculine, snobby world of her husband, Clifford (Jim Jorgensen), a realm of fiery intellectual debates, reading great books and endless conversation.

Although Clifford is portrayed from the start as something of a cold fish, he actually lives in the mind because his body failed him — he is in a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the hips down, the result of a war injury. Without hope of either an heir or sexual intimacy with his wife, Clifford chooses an intellectual chumminess with Constance, a complete and utter devotion to ideas and upper-class mores.

Constance is at first pleased to be loved for her mind, but Clifford’s academic bullying and smugness begins to suffocate her. There has to be something beyond words, beyond talk and duty. She finds it with Oliver Mellors, who displays aching tenderness and a crude devotion to the pleasures of the flesh.

An intoxicating combination, indeed. One that sends Constance spiraling into the modern age, where class doesn’t matter and men and women strive to be equal partners both in and out of the boudoir.

Clifford, on the other hand, remains behind in his cozy concept of traditional England, dotingly tended to by Mrs. Bolton (Charlotte Akin), a bossy and gossipy nurse from the lower classes who is only too happy to treat her master like a baby. The progression of their relationship from master and servant to mother and doddering child is exquisitely creepy.

The Washington Shakespeare Company production is spare and austere, with the white drapes, wintry branches and statuary scattered about giving everything the feel of an Edward Gorey drawing — all Edwardian gloom and doom.

There is nothing subdued about the acting, however.

Miss Shupe is both cosmopolitan and provincial as Constance, bearing a pained, pretty smile, so anxious to please it hurts. Miss Shupe’s portrayal of Constance is so whole you experience the wasting away in her marriage to Clifford as acutely as she does and you share in the lusty triumph of her liberation as well.

Mr. Owen, as Oliver Mellors, embodies the nature-loving stud without descending into stereotypical macho posturing. His Oliver is a lovely man, inarticulate and blunt, but possessing a silvery soul. His counterpart, Clifford Chatterley, is played with delicate sadness and shadow by Mr. Jorgensen.

Nanna Ingvarsson lightens things up with her confident, often comic, air as Constance’s definite sister Hilda. Another strong, but never strident, personality is brought to life by Miss Akin as the no-nonsense Mrs. Bolton.

The Washington Shakespeare Company should be commended for bringing this terrific adaptation to local audiences. It is not often you see a novel brought to the stage with such fine focus and devotion to the author’s intention.

***1/2

WHAT: “D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover” adaptation by Mary Machala and John Vreeke

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 10.

TICKETS: $17 to $22

PHONE: 703/418-4808 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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