Very Classy 'Lady'; 'Chatterley' Blossoms in the Arms of Her Lover

Article excerpt

Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Those who remember D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" only for the sexy parts may be surprised to realize there is a lot more to the novel. Once banned for its frank depiction of sexuality and sensuality, "Lady Chatterley" is, at heart, about class constrictions and the often suffocating bonds of motherly and spousal love.

Mr. Lawrence's meditative and passionate novel deals with the benumbed and deracinated England after World War I and the emergence of "a new man" (personified by Lady Chatterley's lover, the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors) who not only transcends class, but embodies both the masculine and feminine ideals - someone who is both rough and tender.

The Washington Shakespeare Theatre's splendid production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" brings out all these aspects, and, under the direction of John Vreeke, imbues them with an intriguing mix of ruefulness, repression and unbridled sensuality.

The adaptation was commissioned originally by the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, which performs staged readings, with the cast reciting and acting out verbatim passages from novels. When it works - as it does here, beautifully - this highly stylized approach to adaptation appeals to audiences who love drama and the written word. The literary flavor of the book is preserved, yet the evening itself is thrillingly theatrical.

As high-minded as Mr. Lawrence's novel and this staging can be, let's be frank. Nobody is going to schlep to the outer edges of Crystal City in the middle of summer to explore Mr. Lawrence's ideas about class, industry and marriage. That's like saying you read Playboy for the articles.

Most of us are going to check out "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in the hopes of seeing something steamy. I'm happy to report that the production appeals to the libido as much as it does the intellect. The love scenes between Constance Chatterley (Michelle Shupe) and Oliver Mellors (Hugh T. Owen) pulsate with lushness and heat and awakening senses.

Onstage portrayals of sex can be awkward and false when there is no chemistry between the actors, but Miss Shupe and Mr. Owen throw themselves into the role of lovers, and every encounter is palpably believable. The sex is stylized and tasteful, almost choreographed like ballet. The production's only nude scene is not what you would expect. Instead, it's a moment when Constance and Oliver peel off their clothes and run around in the rain, as happy and unfettered and curious as children.

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" reflects a woman's point of view, as Constance eschews the life of the mind for living fully in her body. So there is nothing smutty or degrading about the sexuality in the novel or in the play - instead, there is a sense of discovery and naturalness.

Perhaps that is because, until she met Oliver Mellors, Constance's world was one of thought and talk. It was the masculine, snobby world of her husband, Clifford (Jim Jorgensen), a realm of fiery intellectual debates, reading great books and endless conversation.

Although Clifford is portrayed from the start as something of a cold fish, he actually lives in the mind because his body failed him - he is in a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the hips down, the result of a war injury. …