Begin with the quest for a husband. Combine this with a meddlesome stepmother, menacing suitor, mischievous girl and three dashes of miscommunication, and the result is a typical 19th century drama. By adding a touch of modern humour and an overly dramatic declaration of love, UBC Theatre has created their most recent production: Wives and Daughters.
Jacqueline Firkins’s new play, which is adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name and directed by Courtenay Dobbie, has all the charms of a period piece. The strength of the play is the humour of its supporting characters. Phoebe (Shona Struthers) and Dorothy Browning (Heidi Damayo), the bumbling but lovable old maids who act as the mother figures of the protagonist Molly (Sabrina Vellani), capture the stage with their witty banter and physical comedy. The character of Lady Harriet (Olivia Lang) brings a different type of humour to the show. She is strong, sharp-tongued, and is never afraid to offer commentary on social class issues or chide the sinister Mr. Preston (Aidan Wright) for his flirtatious behaviour.
This humour, however, is also a weakness when it comes to the play as a whole. Gaskell is known for creating works that feature complex women and challenge class and gender norms. Although Molly is a bookish girl who loves science, her intellect is only shown when she is fawning over her love interest (Louis Lin).
In the note from the director, Dobbie states that “the beauty … and emotional crux of the story lie in the relationship between the women.”
This relationship is difficult to discern because the emotions and flaws of the female leads are exaggerated to the point where the women cease to be real and become mere caricatures. The lines delivered by hypercritical stepmother Hyacinth Kirkpatrick (Natalie Backerman) filled the theatre with laughter, but there were very little character growth and only superficial evidence of the women’s evolving relationship.
Even so, the play is visually pleasing. The bright costumes transport the audience back to another time, especially during the ball scenes, when the huge-skirted dresses fan out when the women throw themselves on the ground to weep.
The sound and lighting set the mood of the play and are reminiscent of a quaint English town. The projections of pastel flowers, icy branches and pouring rain effectively remind the audience of the passing time.
During set changes, a cast member played a string instrument. While the music was mostly immersive and acted as an emotional primer for the upcoming scene, it was sometimes intrusive, especially when the musician was standing too close to one of the actors on stage or when the next scene began with a different type of music.
For a play that explores the relevant themes of truth, honesty and reputation, Wives and Daughters fails to relate them to a modern audience. The story feels dated. It shows the mess that gossip and lies can create, but by neglecting character development, it makes it seem like these are problems that are only faced by women who are constrained by the social norms of Britain’s 19th century.
Despite this, the play did a good job of maintaining the novel’s charisma by pulling metaphors and lines from Gaskell’s original text. There were sweet moments and lines that had the theatre roaring.
It is an entertaining production with above average supporting characters, but you should keep in mind that it is the epitome of a 19th century period drama and the clichés are included along with the charms.