Mark Clayton Southers’s Miss Julie, Clarissa and John takes the inspiration for its plot, character, and themes from Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 one-act play Miss Julie. That play – which was initially banned by censors because of its “immoral content” – centers on an illicit midsummer night’s encounter between Miss Julie, the daughter of a Swedish Count, and Jean, her father’s social-climbing valet; the play’s third character, Christine, a kitchen servant and Jean’s fiancée, plays a minor but essential role as witness to and scold against Julie’s dangerous (and ultimately fatal) foray into off-limits social and sexual territory. Strindberg considered Miss Julie to be one of his greatest plays, and I suspect he’s right: it’s a beautifully constructed gem of a play, one that captures a rich and contradictory psychological complexity in its characters’ desires – for each other, for social superiority, for economic power, for self-actualization, for human connection – and is brutally perceptive about the obstacles they face. One of the earliest successful naturalist dramas – a mode of writing that sought, as Zola put it, to adopt the dispassionate attitude of an anatomist dissecting a cadaver – Miss Julie offers some of the same satisfactions and horrors you might get from witnessing a gruesome train wreck: you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Despite the fact that Miss Julie may also be one of the most misogynist plays in the dramatic canon, I’ve always – perversely, I suppose – loved this play; so when I heard that Pittsburgh Playwrights would be mounting an adaptation of it, my geeky little heart went pit-a-pat with anticipation.
Southers makes a number of smart and provocative choices in his reworking of Strindberg’s material. The smartest of those choices is his setting of the play in the Reconstruction Era South. Here, Miss Julie (Tami Dixon) is the daughter of a tobacco plantation owner; John (Kevin Brown) and Clarissa (Chrystal Bates) are former slaves who have stayed on as domestic help to the aging, infirm Captain Hodge as the plantation slides into post-Civil War disrepair. The transposition of the Swedish class dynamic into an American class and race dynamic makes the play’s stakes fresh, familiar, and urgent: we know immediately, and viscerally, how fraught the sexual game Miss Julie initiates with John would have been for both players at that time and place in history. Another smart choice on Southers’s part involves Clarissa’s expanded role in the story, which hinges on her parentage: Clarissa is the offspring of Captain Hodge and one of his former slaves, Odessa, who mysteriously vanished some time before the rest of the plantation’s slaves were emancipated. Clarissa’s unacknowledged status as Julie’s half-sister, and her ongoing bereavement over the disappearance of her mother, adds dimension, depth, and pathos to the cat and mouse game between John and Julie, haunting the present-day action with the devastating physical and psychological torture suffered by slaves at the hands of enslavers.
While the expansion of the story to encompass a richer and more sociopolitically charged backstory for Clarissa is a good thing, the play would benefit from some judicious editing, particularly in the first act, which is heavier on exposition than it needs to be. Hewing more tightly to the original structure of Strindberg’s play – which compresses the action into a more or less continuous sequence of events, without scene breaks or intermissions – would lend this adaptation a tauter mood as well. But though the play’s structure feels baggy, Southers has a deft touch with dialogue, equal, in its subtle shading of character, to what we find in Strindberg in translation. The characters’ language rings authentic and honest, a quality echoed by the rough sawn pine planks and simple utensils of the rustic (former slave’s quarter?) kitchen in which all of the action takes place (the apropos scene design is by Tony Ferrieri). Director Monteze Freeland uses the staging well to underscore the status differentials among the characters and to triangulate the action as power shifts from one to the other. The ensemble here is strong: Chrystal Bates starts off as something of a cypher as Clarissa – and at times her lines are a bit difficult to understand – but she is heartbreaking in her vulnerability by the end of the play. Kevin Brown tiptoes on eggshells across the treacherous terrain of black/white male/female relations mapped out before him by Julie’s power-tripping sexual advances: you can’t but squirm with John as he tries valiantly to navigate the Sophie’s choice this solstice evening presents him with. And as Julie, Tami Dixon tackles a character almost as difficult as last year’s Blanche in Streetcar, with nearly as many contradictions and hidden motives and self-deceptions; her downward spiral, at the end, when she’s got what she wished for and realizes the cost, is a masterful moment of recognition and reversal.