Review: Villette at Lookingglass Theatre Tells a Young Woman’s 19th Century Story With 21st Century Flair

Villette is an 19th century tale played on an strikingly modern stage set. The playing area is bounded by two walls of sliding screens and a few pieces of period furniture as needed. The contrast between the contemporary set design and the period story can be viewed as playwright Sarah Gmitter’s view of heroine Lucy Snowe as a 19th century woman dealing with  problems of income, career and romance in a 21st century manner. Audience members may “recognize a lot of Lucy’s story as parts of their own story,” the playwright comments in the program notes. 

Adapted from the Charlotte Bronte novel, Villette is now on stage in a charming world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre Company, directed by Tracy Walsh. Villette is a fictional place, a city that might be modeled on Brussels, where French is the primary language. We meet Lucy Snowe, a young English woman without family or wealth, as she begins her new life, traveling by ship to her new country to take a job as a nanny. Villette is considered Bronte’s most autobiographical novel. 

Lucy (winningly played by Mi Kang) is on the surface an adventurous young woman but she later admits she prefers her solitude.  She’s successful as a nanny and teacher of English to the three children of Mme. Beck (Helen Joo Lee), who also  operates a school. Lucy soon is promoted to school teacher and thus begins the career she loves. 

Several other characters become part of Lucy’s life. On board ship, she meets the silly young woman, Ginevra (Mo Shipley), who is vain about her looks and her expectations of marrying well. Ginevra, it turns out, is part of Villette society and the two women meet occasionally but do not become friends, even though Ginevra thinks they are besties. 

Mo Shipley and Mi Kang. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Overtaken by illness while out for a stroll, Lucy is rescued by John Bretton (Ronald Román-Meléndez ), a young doctor, who takes her to his home so she can recover. There Lucy meets his mother Mrs. Bretton (a sparkling  Renée Lockett), who turns out to be Lucy’s godmother. (How this relationship came to be is never explained in the play.) Mrs. Bretton takes Lucy under her wing, introduces her to local people, arranges invitations and a new gown for her goddaughter. Lucy is usually conservatively dressed in a two-piece gray suit-dress. The fancy new gown is constructed so that Lucy can whip off her jacket and snap on the bright pink gown in a few seconds. (Kudos to Mara Blumenfeld for costume design.)

Professor Paul Emmanuel (Debo Balogun) is a highly respected teacher who takes an interest—and later a romantic interest—in Lucy. Their relationship is rocky at first but they later realize they are in love and plan to marry. 

Walsh’s cast takes on Bronte’s story in an accomplished manner, even the occasional French dialogue (with help from French consultant Christelle Chauvet). In addition to the lack of any backstory for Mrs. Bretton, her son is often referred to as Graham (his middle name in the novel) although he’s not identified that way in the program. The last half of the play moves along rather slowly; the running time of almost 2.5 hours could be accelerated a bit. 

That inventive scenic design, with sliding panels covered in handwriting, is by Yu Shibagaki, with lighting by John Colbert and sound design by Deon Custard and Brandon Reed. Stage manager is Katie Klemme. 

Villette by Lookingglass Theatre Company continues through April 23 in the Water Tower Water Works building, 821 N Michigan Ave. Running time is 2.5 hours  including an intermission. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday; tickets are available online or at the box office by phone (312-337-0665) or in person. The box office  is open 12-4pm on show days at 165 E. Pearson. Masks are required while you are in the theater building. 

For more information on this and other productions, see

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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