Review: ‘To the Lighthouse’

Opened Feb. 28, 2007, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Rep’s `Lighthouse’ shines in vivid, captivating adaptation
Three stars Bright, beautiful, severe

Some novels are so inherently untheatrical they practically beg to be put on a stage.

Anybody can turn dueling Musketeers or singing corn farmers into some kind of show. The challenge is in adapting something so very literate, so deeply internal and intellectual that to tamper with it threatens to destroy it at every turn.

Such is Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, an experimental work that defies easy description. Ostensibly about Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, their eight children and assorted guests at the family’s Isle of Skye seaside home circa 1910, the novel ends up being less about individuals and more about bodies moving through time and the universe, disconnecting, re-connecting, soaring and flailing — sometimes all within a single moment or string of thoughts.

In three distinct sections, Woolf takes us into the heads of her characters and lets us swim through their stream of consciousness. Then she watches 10 years pass, with the ravages of time, nature, World War I and mortality taking their effect on the Ramsay’s lives. And finally, she allows us a final glimpse into the hearts of a family and an artist.

How to turn such an ephemeral work into a piece of three-dimensional, real-time theater?

Playwright Adele Edling Shank, director Les Waters and composer Paul Dresher have risen to the challenge and done well by Woolf and her admirers. Their version of To the Lighthouse, which opened Wednesday at the Roda Theatre, is by turns, hard, inviting, transcendent and erratic.

Adhering to Woolf’s original design, the 2 ½-hour play is presented in distinct sections. The first is presentational. We meet the Ramsay family and their guests as they perform simple tasks – the painting of a picture, the reading of a story, the knitting of a sock. The characters turn to address us directly and tell us what’s on their minds. This seems the most rudimentary way of turning an interior novel inside out.

More effective — and the absolute high point of the show — is the long, candlelit dinner party scene (pictured above) that is silent (the actors mouth their conversations with one another) except for each character’s most personal thoughts about their lives and their fellow diners.

The trickiest section to adapt is the one Woolf calls “Time Passes.’’ In the book, Woolf zips through a turbulent decade in a few poetically rich pages. Onstage, director Waters essentially stages a tableau incorporating stunning video images (by Jedediah Ike), beautiful sound design (by Darron L. West) and fascinating lights (by Matt Frey).

The video is especially effective as it fills the back walls of Annie Smart’s visually arresting, coldly affecting set full of glassy mirrored surfaces.

Dresher’s score — performed by the onstage quartet of Alex Kelly (cello), Charith Premawardhana (viola), Justin Mackewich (first violin), Sarah Jo Zaharako (second violin) — comes fully into play as the actual sound of time passing. It all works beautifully, especially when Waters throws in echoes of things we’ve already seen (like the dinner table as it’s covered in falling leaves).

In the most theatrical touch of all, the final section, called “To the Lighthouse,” blossoms into a full-blown musical (above), with Dresher’s complex melodies yielding tricky modern art songs.

Bold and risky, this section does not have the impact of the previous sections. The music and the singing distance us too much from the world of refracted thought and feeling that has been so carefully crafted up to this point. The idea of using music to achieve a higher, more intense level of emotion is intriguing, but the effect here dulls rather than deepens.

What you leave the play with are images, most notably images of the dinner party and “Time Passes.’’ Director Waters’ command of multimedia combined with the adept efforts of his cast — headed by a radiant Monique Fowler as Mrs. Ramsay — create an invigorating, captivating theater experience.

Woolf’s complex prose has been necessarily simplified for the stage, but the actors, especially Rebecca Watson as spinster painter Lily Briscoe and David Mendelsohn as testy scholar Charles Tansley, cast shadows that, like so many pieces of this show, feel authentically Woolfish.

For information about To the Lighthouse, visit

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