A peripheral quality of action and inaction pervades the stage set of Berkeley Rep’s very interesting staging of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The sensory world juts out and curves through the playing space, projections of flights of birds, enormous raindrops, swirling seas seen from above move on the screens, music and recorded natural sounds pour through, the beacon flashes—and the cast of characters, drawn from Woolf’s memories of family summers on the Isle of Skye, meet at the intersections of social politeness and private thoughts and feelings.
Woolf’s novel seems to defy adaptation, with its almost complete reliance on that celebrated mode of modern prose, the internal monologue.
Modern theater in fact had developed a whole panoply of techniques for dealing with the internal, the diffident and the ineffable, from Strindberg and Chekhov (both influenced by Maurice Maeterlinck) through Pirandello and the experiments of Dada and the Surrealists by the time To the Lighthouse was published in 1929, developments which led, after the war, to the Theatre of the Absurd.
Adaptor Adele Edling Shank and director Les Waters mostly eschew these parallels to the internal monologue, concentrating on a synthesis of self-narrating soliloquies, overlapping like the visual motifs to give a sense of various facets of the characters.
This bears mixed results, especially as the development of the play is as diced up as the elements of the scenic design and the spoken component of the script. The show progresses from a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes, which then cohere around discussion among the Ramsay family at home about a deferred boating party to the lighthouse and also dialogue between two of their guests about the Ramsays; to a dinner party at a stage-breadth table that plays off the hostess’ (a fine performance by Monique Fowler as Mrs. Ramsay) soliloquizing of her intentions versus the overlapping thoughts of the guests as they observe and react to each other at table; to more conventional scenes of dialogue, then to a long poem about the passage of time; leading to the finale, a kind of opera, when a bereaved Mr. Ramsay and two of his children hoist sail onstage and sail past the ever-vigilant lighthouse while, on shore, old guest Lily Briscoe (Rebecca Watson) finishes a painting.
Watson sings well to the pizzicato, and Edmond Genest’s distant, blank gaze both counterpoints the more intentional glances of family and guests, which attempt to bind together their common space in lieu of dialogue, and completes his excellent portrayal of this eccentric intellectual and father in glimpses that end in the long, blank look of age and mortality on the world. But the rocky sense of mood that tosses the valiant cast like the rough waves of the sea begs the question: should the show have been all opera, all sung?
Ethereal, impressionistic, very aesthetic, yet the game’s worth the candle—candlepower?—of what serves as our beacon: the excellent, eclectic cast, both veterans of Broadway and regional stage (Watson, Fowler, Genest, Clifton Guterman, Whitney Bashor) and staunch local troupers (Jarion Monroe, David Mendelsohn, Lauren Grace and Noah James Butler) and young performers (Jack Indiana, Sophie Gabel-Scheinbaum, Gabriel Stephens-Siegler and Amara Radetsky) as the Ramsay children; the score, the design (Annie Mart’s set, Christal Weatherly’s costumes, Matt Frey’s lighting, Darron L. West’s sound and the best of Jedediah Ike’s video) and the director’s conception of the great dinner party.
“The great revelation has never come, perhaps never will ...” The end effect is, in a way, less that of Woolf’s world of strangely interpersonal solipsism than of the Victorian-Edwardian world she conjures up in this rare, for her, ensemble from memory, very English in its sweeping, impersonal sentimentality, coming alive with vivid apercues and regrets, only to come away with a thronged picture or poem that only reveals what’s missing. “These journeys of remembrance!”
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
Presented by the Berkeley Rep through March 25. $45-$61. 2025 Addision St.