When it was first published in 1847, “Wuthering Heights” was scathed by the critics as “savage,” “animal-like” and “clumsy in construction.” Since then, “Wuthering Heights” has overcome these initial reactions to achieve the posthumous adoration of the public. The unlikely ascendancy of Emily Bronte’s only novel has recently been crowned by a surprising victory in a poll for the greatest British love story, ahead of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers and Austen’s Lizzie and Mr. Darcy. But don’t be mislead by this poll — “Wuthering Heights” is not a conventional love story and is certainly not chick lit. It is as tormented and disturbed as its closest competitors are charmed and fated. It is this tragic romance that is the subject of Elizabeth Barrett Groth’s play.
What differentiates Groth’s adaptation from any other version of “Wuthering Heights” is its unequivocal focus on the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff. There is no backdrop, no costume changes, minimal props … no other actors, even, with the exception of the nurse, Nelly. Moreover, the tables are arranged in a way that the audience is literally close enough to smell the actors’ sweat, as they say; close enough to see the chests heaving, to feel the emotions of tormented love. Groth wanted her retelling to be “intimate,” so that her audience might truly experience the love between the two unfortunate lovers. There is nothing to distract from the quality of the acting and even the slightest changes in gesture and expression are perceptible to the eye.
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Groth evidences her immense passion for the story by acting as both the playwright and as Catherine Linton herself. As the lights turn off, her piercing scream penetrates the darkness to open the play. A soft light illuminates Nelly (Shannon Sullivan GRD ’11), who is calmly knitting and sitting on a rocking chair. A second scream mirrors the first and is quickly revealed to belong to Heathcliff (Sam Lasman ’12). In the midst of the audience’s confusion, Nelly begins to retell the tale of their love, beginning from childhood.
Haughty, selfish and headstrong, Catherine is not immediately likeable, as she ought to be. Her behavior is questionable, her antics obnoxious and her treatment of Heathcliff is, above all, “abominable.” Catherine was never meant to be a sympathetic character and Groth is both accurate and compelling as the consummate anti-heroine. At the same time, when she finally does admit her love for Heathcliff, the interruption of her overwhelming abrasiveness with a sudden vulnerability is both believable and well-executed, especially when she whispers, “But Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” Her understanding of Catherine’s psyche is inimitable and the versatility of her emotions signifies her command of her own play and her beloved character.
Although a little overshadowed by the wild strength of Groth’s character and performance, Heathcliff, is nevertheless, a persuasive character. Because the play does not delve into the intricacies of his revenge, Heathcliff is a little more likeable and a lot less wicked than the book portrays him to be. Heathcliff is, as ever, the indefatigable lover, consumed and possessed by his love for his childhood love, successful in eliciting the sympathy of the audience for his misunderstood love.
The most likeable character of all is Nelly, the only source of benevolence and reason. She is the vital character that fills in all the gaps between the stories. Groth’s ingenious use of Nelly allows her to achieve her minimalist vision, defying a traditional understanding of the work by siphoning the romance from the novel and forgoing everything that is nonessential to her interpretation of their relationship. Not only is she resourceful with the characters, but also with the very few props that they have, re-appropriating various objects to define their setting. Proving that the impossible can be plausible, in this case, is not only effective, but imperative. Even with its drastic reductions of the original plot, the play ran for about an hour and a half, in an extremely intimate setting. Sometimes, however the play seemed to gloss over important points of the novel’s plot, but this is to be expected of an adaptation.
“Wuthering Heights” is a novel about the destructive love between two tragic lovers and how their utter disregard for everything but each other brings about their ultimate demise. In many ways, Groth’s play is also a literal adaptation of a love in which nothing else matters. So don’t go if you are a stickler for textual accuracy, but do go if you want to be absorbed by exemplary acting in a no-frills affair. Even for those who have not read Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, keep in mind that it is not an easy feat to do what they have done with the novel.