A Room With a View

A lack of scenery distracts from an otherwise fine adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel

Open my eyes: Joey Melcher and Claire Ludwig
Open my eyes: Joey Melcher and Claire Ludwig
Photo courtesy of Gray G. Haddock

A Room With a View

Austin Playhouse at Mueller, 1800 Simond, 476-0084
Through April 22
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.

Those who haven't read E.M. Forster's 1908 novel or taken in its 1985 film adaptation are nonetheless likely to hear a bell ring at the mention of A Room With a View. Despite its status as a household title, I confess that Lara Toner's recent adaptation of the classic into a new stage version provided my own first experience with its characters, settings, and plot.

For readers who share my previous ignorance of the work, the story goes something like this: It's 1908 in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch and her domineering cousin Charlotte have been promised a room with a view at a local pensione. Instead, they're presented with dwellings that offer less exemplary vantage points, a problem reconciled when an older man and his grown son offer their view-lavish rooms to the two women. What unfolds is a three-act metaphor about new views, examining both the obstacles and rewards of experiencing the world through unfamiliar windows of thought.

Toner's adaptation does a fine job of focusing on important events in the story as well as clearly defining the individuality of its characters' voices. Its regionalisms are convincing, and – aside from a few episodic scenes that created some bumps along the way – the narrative ride is a fairly smooth one. Yet the direction, also by Toner, at times railroads the merits of her writing with choices that make it difficult to engage fully with the drama. For instance, the blocking is laden with a lot of meandering. Because the Playhouse's temporary space affords no real ability for set changes aside from those that can be executed easily by its actors or a crew member here and there, we never get the sense that Lucy is, in fact, wondering at the beauty of Florence. Instead, she and her colleagues tread in small circles to suggest the changing of time and location, reminding us of what is missing from this production: the view itself.

It's a very difficult challenge indeed to attempt a piece like this in a minimalist way; Toner strives to include artsy directorial choices that remind us to really suspend our disbelief, but one has to strain too mightily. Case in point: At least once during the production, chairs are flipped over at different angles as though the stage has just been ransacked. One eventually realizes, however, that these side-lying chairs are intended to represent shrubs, perhaps, or planters in a garden. The result is one of a few confusing hiccups throughout the show, spans of time during which one has to think too hard to interpret what is otherwise a straightforward story with obvious themes and messages. Whereas Boeing-Boeing was an ideal fit for the temporary facility's hangar-esque feel, this production by Austin Playhouse requires a change of scenery to more convincingly frame its fairly sturdy writing.

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