By Whitney Sorenson
In the playbill for BYU’s The Mill on the Floss in Provo, director Adam Houghton indicates that this staging “emphasizes emotional experience” over reality. To elicit that emotional experience, it uses techniques that make it an atypical adaptation, such as three actors all portraying the protagonist, often at the same time. These breaks from traditional theatrical conventions make it difficult to connect with the play, especially during the first act, but there is a meaningful emotional experience to be had during this three-hour performance.
The Mill on the Floss examines three time periods in the life of Maggie Tulliver, whose father owns and runs a mill on the Floss River. Emily Moore plays the 9-year-old Maggie and is the only actor who plays only one role. Madison Haws plays the teenage Maggie, and Madison Hall plays her as a young adult.
Moore depicts Maggie’s fiery and childish nature well, but I found that version of the character the least likeable. Her frequent outbursts and lack of empathy for others make the first act drag because it’s hard to root for someone who comes across as spoiled.
I much preferred the older Maggies, who must navigate the path between following one’s heart and being loyal to family. Haws transforms the childishness of the younger Maggie into innocence mingled with an intense desire to do right. In turn, Hall depicts an older Maggie who outwardly displays confidence and poise, but in private moments, her self-assuredness fades. The shadows of her former selves return to make her question her actions. Those moments with three Maggies onstage at once are some of the play’s best.
Going in, I knew very little about the play or the source material that inspired it. I just knew it as a Victorian novel, so I anticipated discovering a story that would remind me of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. However, the similarities between those novels and this adaptation of The Mill on the Floss are minor. Only the costumes, the central female character, and the English countryside setting overlap. Playwright Helen Edmundsen deliberately draws out the feminist elements of the story, but without subtlety. Too often, the misogyny of the 1860s is played for shock value, allowing today’s audience to feel enlightened rather than forcing us to consider how much further the quest for women’s rights must go.
Still, as a newcomer to this story, I found much to appreciate in its plot twists. In the dramaturgical information, Richelle Sutton points out that George Eliot expertly uses psychological and moral motivations in her characters to drive the plot forward. This adaptation retains that mastery. Characters in Mill on the Floss make unexpected choices, which aids in the play’s watchability, especially as it winds into its third hour.
Solid acting serves as the backbone of Mill on the Floss, with seven of the eight cast members playing several roles. Most main roles give actors a chance to show their character’s best and worst traits. For example, Maggie’s dad as played by Bradley Mackay first seems like a one-dimensional curmudgeon holding a grudge. He never loses the grudge, but he also shows his soft and self-sacrificing side. Baylee Self gives Maggie’s mother an abundance of selfishness but enough humor to be likeable. Similarly, Caleb Jensen employs all the dashing and dangerous charm you expect in a male love interest.
The two male characters I felt most drawn to were Maggie’s brother Tom and her friend Phillip Wakem. As Tom, Spencer Hunsaker takes on the play’s toughest role. He ages as much as Maggie, but he alone bears the burden of playing a son thrust too soon into being the man of the family. Hunsaker’s acting rarely draws attention away from the main thrust of the story–he knows how to be supportive in a supporting role.
Equally supportive is Cooper Sutton as Phillip Wakem, Mill’s only character who is good through and through. It takes an actor gifted in the art of empathy to make me enjoy a character who makes very few wrong choices, but Sutton succeeded.
These actors use as their playground a deceptively simple set, designed by Kayla Doyle. A sparse thrust stage area sits before a background piece that serves primarily as Maggie’s attic retreat. Susan Kupferer’s lighting design, Matt Kupferer’s sound design, and Austin Lopez’s original music all help to indicate pace and mood changes, but at times these elements distract more from the message than they add to it.
Milk on the Floss plays at the Margetts Theatre in the basement of the Harris Fine Arts Center. Arrive early, especially if other events are happening on campus, so you can find parking and get a good seat. I recommend the play for ages 14 and up, but only bring teenagers who love literature and theatre and who won’t mind sitting still for a long performance.
I don’t always need to love a piece of theatre to consider it worth my time. In the case of Mill on the Floss, I didn’t walk away raving, but I couldn’t deny that the portrayal made me emotionally sore. I hurt when Maggie made tough decisions that fit her morals but broke her heart. That’s a near-universal experience for women, and BYU’s Mill on the Floss creates one more way to remember–and heal–the emotional scars such experiences create.
BYU’s College of Fine Arts and Communications Department of Theatre and Media Arts presents The Mill on the Floss by Helen Edmundsen
Margetts Theatre, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU campus, Provo
November 3-4, 8-11, 14-18 7:30 PM
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Mill on the Floss Facebook Event