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Lookingglass Theatre Company’s world premiere of Villette, a modern adaptation (written by Sara Gmitter and directed by Tracy Walsh) of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, explores the travails of a woman determined to stand on her own and not live in a fairy-tale world of romance. Graced with a rock-solid work ethic, Lucy Snowe is unwilling to compromise her vision of independence, perhaps more because she does not wish to be a burden to anyone rather than due to some clearly defined feminist instinct.

Through 4/23: Tue-Wed 7 PM, Thu 1:30 and 7 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sat 2 and 7 PM, Sun 2 PM; Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $50-$75

The book is a response to works by Jane Austen, with subtle references present even in the play. Lucy Snowe is played by Mi Kang, an actor whose face so deftly mirrors the character’s introversion and irritations that we instantly root for the young protagonist. Comic relief is provided by Ginevra Fanshawe (played by Mo Shipley), the student who tips Lucy off to a teaching gig and inserts herself as a friend, although Lucy finds Ginevra’s social ambitions to be insufferable. Shipley’s Ginevra (delivered with the comic brilliance of a young Molly Shannon) is the perfect foil to Lucy’s earnest nature, highlighting the plight of a loner of no social standing in a world where only marrying up can remove her from a life of servitude. 

Will Lucy be rescued by the rich doctor (though she repeatedly assures the audience this is no fairy tale?) Something of a literary pre-Bechdel test, Lucy’s independence is not so militant that it excludes her from falling in love. Not surprisingly (given its place in the historical timeline of fiction), all of the characters fail the Bechdel test, talking about love and suitable matches incessantly. Yet the scheming thirst for power among the women characters hints at a feminist undercurrent rather than unseemliness or romance. No doubt this story helped pave the way (more than Austen) for generations of writers to come, which would have pleased Brontë to know. 

With a stellar cast, beautiful scenic design by Yu Shibagaki, and rich costume design by Mara Blumenfeld, the joy of this story unfolds with the same understated grace of Lucy Snowe herself as she boldly navigates her own existence.

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