Theater & art

Stage Review

Sexual politics, class divisions a potent mix in ‘Miss Julie’

Brenda Withers and Jonathan Fielding in Harbor Stage Company’s “Miss Julie.”
Anton Anderson
Brenda Withers and Jonathan Fielding in Harbor Stage Company’s “Miss Julie.”

Miss Julie is the reckless and high-strung daughter of an aristocrat, more fragile than she first seems. Jon is her father’s manservant, more refined than most of his station, afflicted with big ideas. And Christine is the cook, a churchgoer rather vaguely affianced to Jon. In the kitchen over the course of one midsummer night’s revels, the attraction between Miss Julie and Jon drives these three into a minefield of class differences and psychosexual drama that could destroy all of them.

Sweden in 1888 was not a barrel of laughs, apparently. At least not according to playwright August Strindberg, who pushed the boundaries of naturalism — and the era’s censors — with his play.

Now the Harbor Stage Company is pushing its geographic boundaries, bringing its well-received summer production of “Miss Julie” from the Wellfleet waterfront to the Modern Theatre for a short run, through Sept. 25.

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The acting is terrific, especially Brenda Withers in the title role. Her Julie is a piece of work, flirty and imperiously taunting one minute, crushed the next, a Blanche DuBois of the fjords. Whether she’s joking or screaming, her pain is always present, and Withers makes it always specific and personal, not just an illustration of Strindberg’s schemas of class and gender.

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Jonathan Fielding’s Jon (Jean in Strindberg’s text) doesn’t seem to know quite who he is, loving one woman or another, one version of himself or another, depending on the situation. And Stacy Fischer gives Christine an intelligence that’s consistent, whether she’s relaxing into Jon’s embrace or trying to preach away his betrayal.

These three are founding members of the company, as is artistic director Robert Kropf, who adapted and directed “Miss Julie.”

The play is of course rife with contemporary resonances, although the sexual politics play more pungently than the class issues, which are different than the kind assailed by Bernie Sanders. (I missed the South African adaptation, “Mies Julie,” that played the Paramount in 2013 and added race to the mix.)

The most notable updating by Kropf is in the humor. There’s an anachronistic, smart-cable-comedy rhythm to the banter in lighter moments, especially from Jon when he’s on the spot with one of the women. “Do you love me?” “Oh, Christ.”

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On opening night, at least, that snark didn’t always seem of a piece with the moments of gasp-inducing cruelty that lead to the shocking conclusion.

That’s a nuance, though, not a big problem. The acting — especially by Withers but really all three — renders it immaterial. If you’ve got a free night this week, here’s a rare chance to see a show from this smart company without crossing the canal.

MISS JULIE

Play by August Strindberg. Adapted and directed by Robert Kropf. Presented by Harbor Stage Company. At the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, Boston, through Sept. 25. Tickets: $23, 508-514-1763, www.harborstage.org

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com