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New adaptations of literary masterpieces kick off seasons at Remy Bumppo and On the Spot

“Howard’s End” and “Sons and Lovers” await Chicago theatergoers.

Miles Borchard and Amy Gray with Brian Boller (background) in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lover
Miles Borchard and Amy Gray with Brian Boller (background) in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lovers.”
Lisa Lennington

The Chicago theater landscape has a long history of literary adaptations for the stage most notably on a regular basis from Lifeline Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre. Now two theaters, Remy Bumppo and On the Spot, are dipping their toes into the process and beginning their fall seasons with adaptations of two classic novels of English literature.

When you’re known as a classical theater company, how do you add to the canon? That’s the question Remy Bumppo artistic director Nick Sandys asked himself. The solution? Commissioning a new adaptation of a literary masterpiece.

Over the years, Remy Bumppo has done readings of a number of adaptations, Sandys says, but not until now has the company committed to a world premiere production of a new play — Douglas Post’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 classic “Howard’s End.”

“The novel is very much about how you find your cultural identity in a world that is changing fast,” Sandys says. “I think it’s a story that has a lot to say to modern audiences.”

Post, a Chicago playwright and longtime fan of Remy Bumppo, had commented several times that he’d like to work with the company and the only way to do that would be to write a new play. In addition to “Howard’s End,” Sandys suggested he look at Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned,” Henry James’ “The Ambassadors” and Willa Cather’s “Death Comes to the Archbishop.”

Eliza Stoughton and Heather Chrisler star in the Remy Bumppo production of “Howard’s End.” |Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
Eliza Stoughton and Heather Chrisler star in the Remy Bumppo production of “Howard’s End.”
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

While all are great novels with great stories, Post says for several reasons he connected to “Howard’s End,” which he calls the “quintessential English novel.”

“It’s a great story with great characters,” Post says. “And Forster’s dialogue is terrific. I felt his way with words would work in a theatrical sense. I understood his style so when it came to creating scenes out of whole cloth, which I’ve had to do for this play, I knew these people and how they talked and what they would and wouldn’t say.”

Both Post and Sandys were drawn to the two central characters, the Schlegel sisters, Helen (Heather Chrisler) and Margaret (Eliza Stoughton), who become involved with two very different families — the wealthy Wilcoxes and the impoverished Basts.

“Here are two very strong women in a world that is constantly telling them to take a step back,” Post says of the sisters who are women of privilege but want to be activists and help the disadvantaged to the consternation of others in their circle.

Forster’s voice is also very philosophical, Sandys adds: ”There are so many great thoughts in the novel about a country being in transition at the beginning of the 20th century. Much like now, it’s a culture that is racing forward and moral and ethical values are sort of left to catch up.”

Miles Borchard and Emma Brayndick star in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lovers.”
Miles Borchard and Emma Brayndick star in Greenhouse Theater Center and On The Spot Theatre Company’s U.S. premiere of “Sons and Lovers.”
Lisa Lennington

On the Spot Theatre artistic director Michael Brayndick is staging his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” in a co-production with Greenhouse Theater. It’s a project he’s returning to after first creating the play for a small touring company in England more than 20 years ago.

Brayndick admits that at the time he was more familiar with Lawrence’s poetry than his novels. But he quickly realized “this is one of those pieces that grabs you because it’s so beautifully written and full of vitality.”

“Sons and Lovers,” considered by many to be Lawrence’s earliest masterpiece, tells the story of budding artist Paul Morel (Miles Borchard) and his complex relationship with his mother and the women in his life, Miriam (Corrie Riedl) and Clara (Emma Brayndick).

In his initial writing, Brayndick’s tack was to focus on these revolving relationships/conflicts in the novel. However, revisiting the process reminded him how challenging adapting a well-known novel can be. Plus now he’s also looking at it from the point of view of a director.

“There’s a lot of story and a lot of characters to fit into a two hour play,” he says. “Plus as a director, it’s a different play for me now. I began to see things in the script that potentially hadn’t been mined as much, and I’ve had the opportunity to take a different view of these moments. It’s been a really interesting process to rethink what is a tragic story and try to find the lightness in it where we can.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.