There’s one scene in Adele Edling Shank’s adaptation of that seemingly most unadaptable of literary works, Virginia Woolf’s 1927 modernist novel "To the Lighthouse," that’s exquisite. The Ramsay family (eccentric father; secretly unhappy but outwardly gracious mother; two of their eight kids) and their houseguests gather for dinner. They mime polite chit-chat as a spotlight moves from character to character, each breaking away to confide to the audience what they’re actually thinking.
It’s a delicate, humorous scene that perfectly conveys Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness to capture the emotions that lurk within the human heart. When the guests leave the long table, its candles still flickering in the dark, the ineffable beauty and sadness of Woolf’s writing is palpable. Watching her guests depart, Mrs. Ramsay says wonderingly, "It is already the past-it is gone," and that’s a breathtaking moment, ringing with Woolf’s deep understanding of the human condition.
Not all the techniques that Shank and director Les Waters use to theatricalize Woolf’s plotless novel are as successful. Clearly detailed slides and films (designed by Jedediah Ike) project onto the fragmented backdrop, some depicting the eternal rain and roiling sea that reflect the characters’ inner turmoil, but others focusing, distractingly, on insignificant objects.
Of necessity, in paring down the novel, the characters inevitably suffer from being too thinly drawn. Most successful is the independent-minded artist, Lily, luminously portrayed by Rebecca Watson in boho attire (attractive period costumes by Christal Weatherly). Lily’s sharp-eyed, painterly scrutiny of the world around her anchors the play. As the conflicted main character, Mrs. Ramsay, whose force of will and elegant earth-mother persona affect all the others, Monique Fowler’s layered portrayal is mysterious in just the way humans are ultimately mysterious, and compelling.
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Tuesdays through Sundays, closes March 25
Contact: (888) 427-8849 or www.berkeleyrep.org