Strindberg’s Miss Julie, written and set in Sweden in the 1880s, is a script that defined naturalism and helped develop modern theatre. It is a tour de force that demonstrates how much can change between two people in a night or two actors throughout the course of a play. The tale of the battle between the power structures of class and gender has a universal and timeless quality making it tempting to adapt and fit to different places and times. Southers’s production ‘Miss Julie, Clarissa and John’, with The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, is set in Virginia after the Civil War. The power structure of race is introduced into the narrative, an adaptation with the potential to be highly effective especially for a modern audience, but that has been done many times before and been done much more effectively.
Southers has written a piece ‘inspired by’ Miss Julie. He has included many aspects of the plot but not all. Like a modern Christian’s interpretation of the bible a lot of picking and choosing has occurred. The value of such a rewrite is questionable, you lose much of the merit of the original masterpiece but get little credit for originality.
One interesting element of this scrip compared to the original is the change to Clarissa and Julie’s relationship, making them half-sisters (a fact that Julie has not accepted at the start of the play), Julie’s father having raped Clarissa’s mother when she was his slave. The gravity of this truth sits rather uncomfortably with its mediocre portrayal and delivery, however. Overall, Southers makes the relationship between the two women much more significant within the story and takes this all the way to the plays conclusion with Clarissa rather than John to be the one to engage in the final verbal battle with Miss Julie and not only witness but encourage her decision to end her own life. This alters the arc of the narrative and makes the story subsequently more about the two women than Miss Julie and John.
Chrystal Bates playing Clarissa is definitely the most interesting to watch and offers the most convincing performance. The other two actors are more doubtful, particularly Tami Dixon who plays Miss Julie. Not least of all, Dixon is much too old for Miss Julie’s naïve and insolent character, intended to be 25 years old in the original. It’s possible that the very small audience had some effect on the performances, as is often the case. But even so, the fact that the Pittsburg City Paper called the trio a ‘Pittsburg acting Hall of Fame’, makes me feel rather sorry for the theatre-goers of Pittsburg.