Adapting a Margaret Atwood novel to a two-hour play is a noble and massive undertaking. Perhaps that’s why Netflix chose to create a miniseries of the book due to come out in October. However, Rivendell Theatre has created a stellar adaptation of Alias Grace, and it’s in no small part due to the efforts of playwright Jennifer Blackmer. The play is centered around Grace Marks (Ashley Neal), a woman who was convicted of murdering the head of house Thomas Kinnear (Drew Vidal) and his mistress Nancy Montgomery (Maura Kidwell) 15 years ago, although she has no recollection of the event. Grace undergoes a series of therapy sessions with Dr. Simon Jordan (Steve Haggard) in an attempt to recover her lost memories and cure her amnesia.
Ashley Neal is remarkable as Grace, a frightened and cautious woman who still retains much of her youth that was taken from her when she was convicted of murder at the age of 16. Grace is wary of Dr. Jordan at first, but it doesn’t take long for her to open up about her past. Grace’s memories play out in front of the audience, and, although this information isn’t new, Dr. Jordan takes it in like a drug. His real addictions become clearer as the play goes on, and Haggard’s portrayal of the troubled and often disturbed doctor brings a tangible unease to the stage. Grace and Dr. Jordan’s relationship is based entirely on power, which continuously shifts throughout the play. Both characters desperately want validation for their actions, but neither is able to find it.
Grace’s most vivid memories are with Mary Whitney (Assyette Munoz), an enlightened and free-spirited maid who shines a light on Grace’s naivety, despite being the same age. Grace’s memories of Mary are initially delightful and portray a lovely friendship, but everything changes when Mary suddenly dies from a botched abortion. Grace’s memories are beautifully brought to life by the quilted backdrop onstage; the quilt is a rich red and orange, but when Grace thinks back to that fateful evening, the lights are deep blue and turn the quilt purple and green. These colors shift once more when Dr. Jordan has upsetting and visceral hallucinations of Grace and Mary as well. His erotic and obsessive thoughts take over, proving that everyone in this story has ulterior motives…everyone perhaps, except Grace.
The simple yet cold set design (headed by Elvia Moreno) feels like a prison itself, reminding us that even when we are witnessing scenes in the present, every character is still trapped in some way. Like many of Atwood’s works, the women take on a subservient role, and each female character is punished for her gender. However, Grace holds more power than she realizes, and Neal’s portrayal of the meek Irish maid forces the audience to become the jury. Did Grace murder her employer and his lover? We are left with no choice but to climb into Grace’s mind and find out for ourselves.
Alias Grace is at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave.; it has been extended through November 4. Tickets are $38, and the play is 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission. Purchase tickets to Alias Grace here.