Review: Wuthering Heights at Chicago Shakes Deftly Adapts Brontë’s Dense Novel with Innovation, Palpable Passion

Since its publication in 1847, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has been adapted into numerous film versions, but only a few brave souls have tried to wrangle her complicated, multi-generational story of two well-to-do families in England’s Yorkshire Moors (and the foundling Heathcliff) onto the stage. Now, playwright and director Emma Rice has made the effort, and her rousing, compelling and sometimes complicated adaptation is on stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a show on tour following an acclaimed run in London, New York and elsewhere. Running nearly three hours long (including one intermission), the show has plenty of time to explore the family traumas, complicated love stories and unrelenting greed that drives the lives and legacies of the Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliff himself.

Staged in The Yard, Chicago Shakes’ adaptable and cavernous second theater space, Rice’s Wuthering Heights peels back the complicated trappings of its era, Northern England in the mid-1800s, and instead presents a production where several actors duplicate supporting roles, all the show’s props and set pieces are visible in the wings, and costumes and effects are simple yet eye-catching (Vicki Mortimer designed both costumes and sets). Together, it all evokes the weather-worn, wind-swept harshness of the story’s setting, the moors that surround the estate known as Wuthering Heights and the nearby Thrushcross Grave. A small (but talented) band takes up residency upstage to complete the setting and contributes stirring music that serves as part film score and part Greek Chorus (but more on that later).

The Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (Jordan Laviniere) surrounded by the Moors. Photo by Muriel Steinke, courtesy of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

As Rice (and her characters, at times) can tell you, the story at the center of Wuthering Heights is quite a bit to follow; more than once, this adaptation pauses its own narrative and breaks the fourth wall to check in with its audience and make sure we’re all following who’s who and, perhaps more importantly, who’s still with us and who’s met their tragic end (at first, it’s mainly the parents our main characters held dear). This thread of self-awareness runs throughout the show, and it’s a small but significant way Rice adds a sense of the contemporary to her period piece. For a full review before you go (or refresh, if, like me, you haven’t read the book since high school), Wikipedia has the plot and characters (and spoilers, too); for now, there are a few basics worth knowing:

Wuthering Heights is a grand estate owned by Mr. Earnshaw (TJ Holmes), who lives there with his son, Hindley (Tama Phethean) and daughter Catherine (Katy Ellis); four miles across the moors is Thrushcross Grange, where the Lintons reside—we meet siblings Edgar Linton (Sam Archer) and Isabella Linton (Georgia Bruce), roughly the same age as Hindley and Catherine. Into this mix comes a young boy named Heathcliff (Liam Tamne), an orphan Mr. Earnshaw adopts, welcoming him into their family as another son. This doesn’t go down well for Hindley, who only sees his inheritance shrinking as a result, but Catherine and Heathcliff bond in a way that is both endearing and intoxicating. In Rice’s adaptation, the Moors, that geographical feature that holds such prominence in the novel, becomes a central character, a small group led by Jordan Laviniere who interject musical interludes to highlight key moments of the plot (see: Greek Chorus) and as a sort of Jiminy Cricket voice of reason for these players as their lives get ever more intertwined and complicated.

As the Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliff grow older and matters like marriage and family come into play, egos are laid bare, desires are denied and no one quite ends up with who they want to. Oh, and more people die, too. Hindley marries a woman named Frances (Eleanor Sutton), while Catherine marries Edgar and, not to be left out, Heathcliff, who’s become a boorish man troubled by the poor treatment he’s endured from Hindley and others who don’t believe he deserves a seat at their gentried table, marries the diminutive Isabella. All three of these unions produce children, a new generation to inherit the land their families have resided on for decades and the traumas that come with it. And, in case you were wondering, more people die, too. Over the course of the production’s two extensive acts, emotions bubble up and boil over again and again, delivering a narrative that ebbs and flows in thoughtful, measured (and sometimes not) ways. Some of the show’s most poignant moments are its quietest; others are so intense, it’s impossible to look away (the end of Act 1, in particular).

The opening night performance that I attended featured a few ensemble members stepping in for key roles (a card in our programs indicated that Catherine, Mr. Earnshaw and others were being played by actors other than the ones originally noted), and unfortunately, the show’s momentum was briefly paused due to an unexpected technical issue mid-way through Act I that resulted in an impromptu intermission. But neither of these things dampened the show’s overall impact; if anything, attendees on any other night might see an even better version than Saturday’s innovative, enthralling performance. Though Bronte ultimately has written a cautionary tale filled with tragedy, death and the high price paid for unchecked ambition, she infuses Wuthering Heights with a passion and romance that Rice ensures is palpable in her worthy and memorable stage adaptation.

Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights is playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E Grand Ave., through February 19; tickets range from $59-$106. Tickets, showtimes and more information are available online.

For more information on this and other productions, see

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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