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Margaret Atwood’s searing psychological thriller fit for the stage

Ashley Neal plays Grace Marks and Steve Haggard is Dr. Simon Jordan in the Rivendell Theatre production of "Alias Grace," based on a Margaret Atwood novel. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Margaret Atwood, the award-winning Canadian writer whose abiding passions range from feminism to “social science fiction” and robotics, needs little introduction these days, now that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her already widely read 1985 novel dealing with a dystopian government and its fierce subjugation of women, has become a hit mini-series on Hulu.

Stage versions of Atwood’s work are still rare, however, so Rivendell Theatre’s riveting world premiere production of “Alias Grace” — her 1996 novel that was loosely based on a notorious 1843 murder case, and has now been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Jennifer Blackmer — is reason to celebrate. And the production, presented in association with Brian Nitzkin, could not have arrived at a more opportune moment.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Rivendell Theatre,
5779 N. Ridge
Tickets: $38
Info: (773)334-7728
Run time: 2 hours and
10 minutes with one intermission

In many ways this play, sharply directed by Karen Kessler and performed with feverish intensity by an ideally cast group of actors, deals with all of Atwood’s most familiar themes: the oppression of women, the pernicious impact of class differences, the desperation that can come with poverty, and the often deeply troubling aspects of both religion and science. It also is a fitting final entry in Rivendell’s 2017 season, which has been dedicated to exploring the mind/body connection.

At the center of the story is Grace Marks (Ashley Neal in a remarkably controlled yet vulnerable performance devoid of any shred of artifice). She was just 16 years old, and working as a domestic at the beautiful Canadian estate of the dashing bachelor Thomas Kinnear (an aptly smug and seductive Drew Vidal) and his housekeeper-mistress, Nancy Montgomery (Maura Kidwell, who makes jealousy palpable), when, along with James McDermott (fiery David Raymond), an Irish stable boy, she was accused of the brutal murder of both Kinnear and Montgomery.

Ayssette Munoz (from left) plays Mary Whitney, with Amro Salama as Jeremiah and Ashley Neal as Grace Marks in “Alias Grace,” at Rivendell Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Now, many years later, Grace has been transferred from a harsh prison to a supposedly more enlightened facility that is being championed by the socially prominent, controlling (and unhappily married) Mrs. Rachel Lavell (Jane Baxter Miller is haughty privilege and villainy personified). Lavell has lured the young, distinguished, handsome and Laudanum-addicted Dr. Simon Jordan (the ever-superb Steve Haggard, in a performance that brings a wonderfully unstable charge to the stage) to test out his “talk therapy” technique on Grace, who has long claimed she has no memory of the events surrounding the double murder.

It gradually becomes quite clear that few of the people in Grace’s past, as well as in her current situation, are without their own twisted motives and obsessions — a fact that puts any definitive assessment of her guilt or innocence intriguingly up for grabs. She is unquestionably the victim of many traumatic circumstances. She might also be suffering from mental illness.

In flashbacks we see the naive but exceptionally smart and observant young Grace attracted by the attentions of McDermott, Kinnear and a visiting American peddler, Jeremiah (Amro Salama, an inspired charlatan), who wants her to become his partner in an illusionist’s act. Kinnear’s attention to Grace clearly riles Nancy, and she also detests the rambunctious James. And like all women of her time and station, Grace is terrified of becoming pregnant, losing her job and ending up on the street as a prostitute. She also is profoundly traumatized by the death from an abortion of her more worldly and beloved friend, Mary Whitney (the high-spirited Ayssette Munoz).

In the present we see even more corruption as Lavell wields her power over Dr. Jordan, as Jordan becomes erotically drawn to Grace, and as lust as well as money and power games corrupt serious science.

Elvia Moreno’s tomb-like scenic design (with lighting by Michael Mahlum), along with Janice Pytel’s class-defining costumes, suggest the eerily gothic yet sadly realistic worlds in which Grace (and all her possible selves) dwell. Chilling.

One final note: On Oct. 11, Atwood will be honored in Chicago with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, presented by the Chicago Public Library Foundation and Chicago Public Library. “Alias Grace” runs through Oct. 15, and it can only be hoped that the author makes a stop at Rivendell to catch this disturbing, finely rendered interpretation of her work.

Steve Haggard plays Dr. Simon Jordan and Jane Baxter Miller is Mrs. Rachel Lavell in the Rivendell Theatre production of “Alias Grace.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)