Mayslake Tudor Mansion’s library in Oakbrook proved the perfect venue for Vision Production’s Midwest Premiere of The Art of Sisters. Miriam Canfield, Artistic Director, and actor playing (Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre) does a marvelous adaption of the Brontë sisters’ works and lives. She seamlessly integrates excerpts from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, along with poems and letters of the sisters and their father on the 200th birthday of Anne Brontë into a compelling story of the joy and struggles of these sister-women authors.
These sisters originally wrote under men’s pseudonyms. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell while Emily wrote Wuthering Heights under the name Ellis Bell and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as author, Acton Bell.
Miriam Canfield is an astounding actress who has trained at New York University’s Tisch Drama School. Previously, she appeared as Joan of Arc at New York Winter Theater Festival and Anne Brontë in A Woman of Courage that she also adapted and directed.
We were fortunate to arrive early enough to hear Pianist and Composer, Nathan Ben-Yehuda, rehearsing for tonight’s performance. We both surmised correctly he was Juilliard trained. He is an accomplished pianist, winner of the 2017 Young Performing Artist, and achieved a Tanglewood Fellowship. His undergraduate degree was at the Royal Academy of Music in London and, as we thought, he earned his Masters Degree, at the Julliard School in New York. He alone is worth coming out to see. He did a masterful accompaniment to the performance. Sometimes his playing was pensive, sorrowful and discordantly chilling. Other times it was buoyant and joyful.
This multi-talented Chicago professional cast was entrancing. They embrace each other and the audience in story telling while dancing through the aisles. The library of Mayslake serves as the set for this production. It is open–seating and the actors use all of the space and get dangerously close to their audience members. You may find yourself spinning around to see what is going on behind you. You will not have trouble hearing them though without microphones they still project clearly and eloquently.
Tom Paulsen (Reverend Patrick Brontë) Tom, the actor, is a retired high school administrator. He has appeared in more than a dozen North Central College and Naperville Park District productions. Reverend Brontë is the father to his literary daughters. He relates the sufferings and loss of his wife and three daughters with grace and understanding through his steadfast belief in God. He outlived all of his six children, but continued to preach into his 80’s.
Derek Fawcett (Heathcliff and Death) is perfectly cast. As Death he demonstrates frightening physicality. His recent credits include FOX TV’s Empire, South Pacific, Miracle and look for him soon in the Chicago premiere of Disney’s Freaky Friday.
Stephanie Neuerburg (AnneBrontë/Mrs. Graham/Helen Burns) besides being an accomplished actor she is also a writer and producer. She was a National Finalist in 2015 for the Outstanding Short Play Award. She produces and hosts her own podcast.
Grace Smith (Emily Brontë/Catherine Earnshaw) is especially powerful and intense. Her Chicago appearances include Northlight Theater, Lookingglass Theater, American Equity Theater and Film/TV Knives and Skin and The World’s Astonishing News.
Nate Smith (Mr. Rochester) is a very handsome debonair actor who banters with Charlotte asserting his love for her. He last performed as Bob Crachitt in A Christmas Carol and The True Cost: Stories of Human Trafficking.
At the closing all cast members including the Baily Howard (Stage Manager) and Erin Collins (Assistant Stage Manger) and Nathan Ben–Yehuda (Composer, Pianist) take a bow. This shared moment touchingly honored the collaborative effort.
Even if you are not a Brontë fan, this was exquisite acting and a wonderful story. After all of the times I have shopped and dined in Oakbrook, I was totally clueless about the Mayslake Peabody Estate. This Tudor mansion is a treasure with rich Chicago history and is worth a tour. In 1993, the Dupage Forest Preserve purchased the 87 acres including Mayslake Hall, Portiuncula Chapel, lakes, and an oak savanna making it accessible to the general public.
Photography by Vision Productions