'Miss Julie': A Strindberg classic in a Philly townhouse

Angela Smith and Adam Phillip Darrow as Julie and John, an upper-class woman and servant who have a sexual relationship.
Angela Smith and Adam Phillip Darrow as Julie and John, an upper-class woman and servant who have a sexual relationship. (ALEX REMNICK)
Posted: May 04, 2012

Into the mansion's kitchen the young servant barges, wearing a half-disgusted, half-bemused look and blurting out his take on his boss' dangerously flirty daughter, Miss Julie. "Tonight, she is wild again!" he declares in the first line of August Strindberg's classic, a line that defines her character throughout. But in this case, the servant is in the kitchen of a real Philadelphia townhouse that can hold about 40 audience members.

August Strindberg's look at power and class, Miss Julie, is being produced through the weekend on the first floor of a fully lived-in townhouse on Second Street, where the southern edge of Center City begins to meld into Queen Village. Like many homes in the neighborhood, it is long and lean and redone inside to combine the best of an old self and a new one - Strindberg's three characters in the play weren't originally surrounded by flat-screen TVs but they were by columns at the portals, and the house has both.

In the spin on Miss Julie by the young InVersion Theatre Company, we are in 2012 as we move from the play's first kitchen scene into the combined large living room/dining room, where the rest of it unfolds. Well, we're not fully in the present; Strindberg cannot possibly offer us a modern take on sexual attraction and its social repercussions.

And so he offers us the late 19th-century Scandinavian version - the play is set in Sweden in 1874. Everything between the high-class Miss Julie and the common servant changes after they hop into bed, just as coupling changes relationships now, but we don't worry too much nowadays about whether you were born to old money and I have to work for a living. Miss Julie and her servant, John, do, and it drives them to distraction while we look on in a modern setting and ask, but why?

We may even ask the same question when Miss Julie is done on a proscenium stage, but in an old-fashioned context its focus on social repercussions is more understandable. I have to hand it, though, to William Steinberger, InVersion's founding artistic director, who stages this Miss Julie. He judiciously edited the play, updating a few references, and most of the dialogue sounds contemporary.

I saw Miss Julie in its single preview Wednesday night - it opened Thursday - and it was nicely polished but for a few moments of wine-opening and lagging entrances. Lanky Angela Smith seemed a little stiff in her delivery at first, but she loosened up as Miss Julie the more her character realized that canoodling with the servant, John, would be her undoing - the reaction that's hard to swallow for us moderns in a modern setting. Adam Phillip Darrow gives a strong performance as John; his character demands that he tease Miss Julie as well as make serious suggestions about their futures, and he plays both sides well. Jessica Ludd is the cook caught somewhat in the middle, and she rounds out the trio of solid actors.

What InVersion's Miss Julie stresses is the power shifts in the play - the give-and-take about who is the servant and who the master. It also smartly generates a fair amount of heat when Smith and Darrow both approach and avoid flirtation. Not that a modern townhouse can't generate its own, but some forms of energy are always in fashion, no matter the setting.

Miss Julie

Produced by InVersion Theatre Company through Sunday at 787 S. Second St. Tickets: $18. Information: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/242042.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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