Heading to the ‘Lighthouse’

Here at Theater Dogs, we zip from one subject to the next — from the dark cynicism of American $uicide to the zip of a light saber with One-Man Star Wars Trilogy.

Well, imagine how hard it must have been for director Les Waters (above) to go from the child torture and murder of The Pillowman to the world of Virginia Woolf and her sedate surfaces and roiling interior emotions.

Last month at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Waters opened Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman one week and began rehearsals for the world-premiere stage adaptation of Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse the next.

“I went from an aggressive male play with a fast rhythm to working on unconventional scenes that appear to be like scenes you’d encounter in a conventional play, but everyone is speaking their internal thoughts,” Waters explains. “My first week of Lighthouse following Pillowman was a jolt to my system.”

Waters, who is Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director, never counted himself as a Virginia Woolf fan. Growing up in England, he didn’t study her in high school or college, but he did see Sally Potter’s movie version of Orlando starring Tilda Swinton.

“I think I had some kind of reservation or distance toward Virginia Woolf, which sounds stupid,” Waters says. “There’s such a cult around her, particularly in England. Every member of that Bloomsbury group had diaries or letters published, and I always thought, `Oh, God. No more.”’

But while working as a professor in the theater department at UC San Diego, Waters’ colleague, Adele Edling Shank, handed him a script for her adaptation of To the Lighthouse.

Waters read it and then bought the novel.

“Yes. Virginia Woolf. I’d come on board,” Waters says.

That was about six years ago, and this weekend the Lighthouse finally shines.

Previews begin this weekend, and the show opens Feb. 28 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.

Like the novel, the play is in three sections: “The Window,” in which the Ramsay family visits its summer home in the Hebrides; “Time Passes,” a fast-forward peek into the various Ramsays’ lives (and deaths); and “The Lighthouse,” set 10 years after the family last visited the vacation home, and involving the painting of a picture and a boat trip to the lighthouse.

Not exactly action packed, but then again Woolf was all about breaking the conventions of the novel. That’s why Woolf and Shank added music to their stage version.

“For a while, the script felt like a normal adaptation,” Waters says. “We knew we needed to expand or develop in a different direction. It felt a little tight and needed to go somewhere else. The same way Woolf is experimenting with the form and content of a novel, Adele felt there was something we needed to do to push the adaptation just past being a tightly controlled distillation of the text.”

Enter composer Paul Dresher, who composed the play’s score, which will be played onstage by the Seventh Avenue String Quartet.

Waters says the music starts off the play and helps in scene transitions at first, then fully develops during the “Time Passes” sequence.

“In `Journey to the Lighthouse,’ the four performers sing the majority of the text,” Waters says. “If you read the section, it’s very dry. Set to music, it expands with these sorts of volcanic emotions.”

This is Waters’ first time working on an adaptation (he doesn’t really count his work with Caryl Churchill on Mouthful of Birds, which was “such a loose adaptation” of Euripides’ The Bacchae ). There are a couple of other novels he’d like to see come to the stage, notably Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field.

“I’m also a huge fan of Proust,” he says. “But how? I have no idea. You could ask the same question of Woolf. The answer is: You try.”

To the Lighthouse continues through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.