The Yellow Wallpaper

by Sergei Burbank · January 24, 2014

Playwrights on New Plays #36 Sergei Burbank shares his thoughts on The Yellow Wallpaper playing at the WorkShop Theatre

Greg Oliver Bodine’s adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous novella is artfully faithful to its source. The story follows Jane, a late-19th-century housewife who is relocated by her physician husband, John, to a mansion in the countryside for the summer, ostensibly for the sake of Jane’s fragile constitution. Her physician husband, steadfastly refuses to consider that there is any mental or emotional cause of Jane’s distress, as he is a man who only believes in the things that can be observed and measured. Listening to her recount the tale from the distance of time and with different political sensibilities, it is easier to see that Jane’s enforced idleness as a result of the gender mores of the time has more than a little to do with her unhappiness and instability. Nevertheless, with a full faith in her husband’s ability to “cure” her, Jane accedes to his regimen of closely scheduled treatments throughout her day, while she is held almost nearly prisoner in the summer house. Without any agency over her life or living situation -- their bedroom is placed on the top floor of the house against her wishes -- Jane is a prisoner of her husband’s ministrations, and her resistance against it manifests in a fixation on the yellow wallpaper that covers every surface of her room-cum-prison. Forbidden by her husband/doctor/jailer from writing, Jane finds ever-more-obscure scraps of paper on which to catalog her thoughts. Her narrative is intended to chronicle her recovery; in fact, it will chart Jane’s journey from neurosis to madness.

Bodine’s one-woman adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous text is faithful to its source: the first person narrative is aptly recreated by the script’s format, with Jane’s lapsing into other characters kept to a minimum, maintaining hers as the dominant voice. The transition from novella to monologue is particularly apt in this case, as Gilman’s original first-person narrative holds many parallels to one-person performances: the character’s is the sole source for world-building, their limited perspective allowing us to interpret facts and details divergently from how they are offered. For instance: Jane assumes the attic space to which she is restricted served in the past as some kind of nursery; but the details she notes leads one to believe this isn’t the room’s first use as a pseudo-prison.

Lauren Parrish’s subtle and evocative lighting design brilliantly follows Jane’s shifting interpretations of the wallpaper, allowing the audience to shift its perspective in real time with Jane, rather than depending upon its imagination.

The task of carrying the full weight of this world rests on Annalisa Loeffler’s shoulders, and it is a task she undertakes with aplomb. Her Jane consistently pulls against the weighty expectations of the source text, attempting to absorb every setback and imposition with good humor and optimism. This approach pays off enormously by the conclusion -- as her final break is a triumph, not a defeat.

The text is adapted by someone with a clear affinity for the language of this classic piece of literature -- it assumes, indeed, it requires, an equal love on the part of its audience. It is a production that casts its lot with the power of live storytelling to enchant an audience through perseverance and sincerity, not tricks or guile. An audience member’s efforts to follow where the production is leading will be richly rewarded.

[Post Script: It should be noted that I am a past enthusiastic collaborator with both Annalisa and Greg; I am not at all surprised by their success in pulling off this feat -- nor am I anywhere close to an impartial observer of their work.]





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