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The eccentric, egotistical title character of the far-from-prime Raleigh Little Theatre presentation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, adapted for the stage in 1966 by Jay Presson Allen (TRU) from the short and somewhat autobiographical 1961 novel by Muriel Spark, is truly unforgettable. She is an unconventional teacher at a straitlaced school for girls, circa 1931 to 1936, where she ignores the subjects that comprise the traditional curriculum and instead regales her impressionable adolescent students with her philosophy of Truth and Beauty and spicy tales of her romantic interludes in faraway places.
A never-married middle-aged woman in her self-proclaimed sexual prime, Jean Brodie prides herself in putting “old heads on young shoulders,” but she plays favorites with her prize pupils — an elite who are called “the Brodie Set” in a Presbyterian Edinburgh, Scotland, where the notion of the elect is a key religious tenet — and she conducts not-so-secret love affairs with Mr. Lloyd, the married art teacher, and Mr. Lowther, the unmarried music teacher. But it is her infatuation with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascist Black Shirts that proves her undoing, as she also expresses admiration for El Duce’s despotic European counterparts, German Führer Adolf Hitler and Spanish Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Jean Brodie is a plum part — on Broadway Zoe Caldwell won the 1968 Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Play and on film Maggie Smith won the 1970 Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role — and RLT veteran Sandi Sullivan can emulate Miss Brodie’s theatrical manner, but she can never quite muster the panache to be completely convincing in this flamboyant role.
Brodie is a regular force of nature, but Ms. Sullivan plays her somewhat stiffly as an academic prima donna. Moreover, she has little chemistry with Tim Corbett, who lacks the animal magnetism of Teddy Lloyd, and Joel Horton, who portrays Gordon Lowther as such a milquetoast that it is impossible to see why Jean Brodie would invite him into her bed.
The usually reliable Sheila Outhwaite is also somewhat stiff as Miss Brodie’s implacable nemesis, Miss MacKay, the haughty headmistress of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls and the smiling cobra who delights in assassinating her insubordinate subordinate. Alison Lawrence has some memorable moments as the starchy Sister Helena, but last Friday Shawn Smith seemed stricken with a bad case of opening-night jitters as the American journalist Mr. Perry. He was tentative to a fault.
The young ladies of the “Brodie Set” — Laura Barone as Jenny Gray (the pretty one who has instinct but no insight, and will be famous for sex, according to Miss Brodie); Allison Powell as Miss Brodie’s confidant Sandy Stranger (the plain one who has insight but no instinct); Chloe Oliver as Monica Douglas (the math whiz who accidentally stumbles across her beloved teacher kissing Mr. Lloyd), and Laura Owens as the class scapegoat Mary Macgregor (the poor dimwit over whom Jean Brodie exercises an unnatural influence) — are portrayed with brio, if not always with polish. But Allison Powell gives a particularly good account of herself.
Long-time RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons stumbled badly when he miscast Miss Brodie and Mr. Perry, and the RLT production never really recovers. Scenic designer Rick Young’s roll on, roll off sets for Miss Brodie’s classroom, Miss MacKay’s office, Mr. Lloyd’s art studio, and a student’s bedroom facilitate quick scene changes — but they also are a constant reminder that the audience is watching a play.
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