“Out on the wily, windy moors,” sang Kate Bush, “we’d roll and fall in green.”
The color of money, of which Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” a story sufficiently iconic to actually deserve the word, has spun plenty. But also of bracken, the coarse fern found on the Brontë sisters’ beloved Yorkshire Moors, providing soft potential beds for sultry Cathy and her smoldering outsider/lover Heathcliff, but also choking back all the pretty heather.
Those ambivalent hills around Haworth, the gorgeous cobblestoned village where the sisters grew up, are as important a character in their works as any Victorian human. And that’s especially true of the brooding, melancholic, romantic prose of Emily Brontë: Hollywood quickly figured out that Heathcliff best was seen be-caped and framed in swirling, nonspecific mist.
As narrated by Sam Archer, the Moors function as the main character in Emma Rice’s widely acclaimed adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” for her bespoke Wise Children theater company, a British troupe known for its fresh interpretations of classic works previously layered with baggage. Wise Children is currently touring the U.S. and is now in residence at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. If I were to state as simply as possible the main accomplishment of this production it’s this: It returns the story to the time and place of its creation: Yorkshire in 1847, when death was a frequent early visitor, especially for children and women in childbirth.
Before I go any further, I have to say how truly wonderful it is to see major international theater return to Chicago after the pandemic disruption. After becoming used to Chicago Shakespeare’s stellar WorldStage program all these years, the total drought since 2019 (a year that brought theater from South Africa and Mexico), has been depressing. Chicago theater is still struggling to return to full strength and that has resulted not only in fewer shows this winter but a plethora of works with just a small clutch of actors and one plot, if there is plot at all.
So to watch an international artist of Rice’s stature, and her full ensemble-driven company, wrestle with a masterpiece as multifaceted and complicated as “Wuthering Heights” is a delight. That pleasure is intensified by the clear link between Rice’s approach, which is to deconstruct the work’s typical association with repressed sexual desire in favor of exploring its broader socioeconomic milieu, with innovations born in Chicago. Not only does Rice use a lot of the techniques associated with the late, great Frank Galati and Northwestern University, but the theater ecosystem has also passed along a lot of the ideas from companies like the Neo-Futurists, who long specialized in making the mechanics of making theater out of works like this as transparent as possible. As one example, Rice uses chalkboards to indicate when one of Brontë’s characters has died: I remember seeing the Neo-Futurists do precisely that some 20 years ago.
So what are you getting here exactly? A cheerfully anachronistic and self-aware exploration of the novel, replete with live music, composed by Ian Ross. It’s going too far to call the show a musical or folk opera, but it’s very much a show with music. There’s a variety of media from live actors to puppets. And the show inhabits Rice’s signature aesthetic position: a refusal to be fully sold on what the material is widely assumed to be, but nonetheless fascinated by its place in popular consciousness. So if you’re expecting a full-on romantic bath of all the typical Brontë feels, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you’re ready to think about what was really going on in and around “Wuthering Heights,” you’ll find much of interest and provocation.
The actors, including Katy Ellis, who has recently taken over the role of Catherine, Lloyd Gorman who plays Mr. Earnshaw, and the droll TJ Holmes, who played Dr. Holmes Friday night, are generally excellent: Eleanor Sutton,who plays Catherine Linton, rises even above that. I found Liam Tamne, the brooding fellow who essays Heathcliff, less than accessible at times, which might sound true to type but is not entirely true in this production. Most in the cast, also enhanced greatly by Tama Phethean, play several roles and they do so with great skill and commitment; Ellis got better and better as the night went on and her character sunk further and further into the mist.
Know that the show is long; Brontë’s intergenerational saga is not easily wrestled into postmodern compliance. On opening night, the show was made yet longer by an unscheduled Act 1 stop to sort out a backstage problem, or so I was told, but even on a regular performance, we’re pushing three hours as characters live and die, mostly unhappily. “Wuthering Heights” has a lot of twists, and there are things for which Rice has a plethora of great ideas, and other moments when it feels like she is just getting as expeditiously as possible to the next crisis of heart and soul.
Understandably so. I was profoundly glad for the challenge to try and keep up with all the ideas and feelings in the mist.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Wuthering Heights” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Wise Children at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 50 mins.
Tickets: $59-$106 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com