It’s hard to believe there was ever a point in time where women lacked autonomy. They couldn’t choose their own career path, they couldn’t love who they wanted, and their brothers were always superior.
On February 17, the graduating class of the theatre and drama studies program premiered Helen Edmunson’s adaptation of The Mill on the Floss under the direction of Anita La Selva. The story features Maggie Tulliver (Alessa Dufresne, Avery Logan, Victoria Dennis), a girl with a big imagination and even bigger dreams. But as this play takes place in Victorian England, it was not easy for Maggie to let her imagination run free without appearing “foolish” and disgracing her family. The Mill on the Floss follows a girl with big aspirations, and how she attempts, again and again, to bring those aspirations to life.
The Mill on the Floss was originally published as a novel by George Eliot in 1891. Yet, “George Eliot” was just a pseudonym that Mary Anne Evans used to pursue a career in writing. Evans’ goal was to escape the stereotype of the Victorian era that women in novels were nothing more than pretty little things who grew up to be vessels for children. We can see the undertones of feminism in this story, as Evans’ strong female voice is hard to ignore throughout the play.
The script drops us into the life of Maggie, her brother Tom Tulliver (Jack Comerford), her mother Bessy Tulliver (Bryn Kennedy), and her father Thomas Tulliver (Gregory Guzik). The play opens with Maggie reading aloud about witches. Namely, if a woman was thrown in water and could swim, she was a witch, but if she struggled, she was just a silly woman. The lighting panned on a woman being thrown into the water, portrayed by a long blue sheet. The woman struggled to swim. This fascinated Maggie. For the first time, the audience is introduced to Maggie’s big imagination.
Tom then returns from school. Since he’s a boy, he’s given the opportunity to go to school, whereas Maggie stays home in her room, expanding her imagination by reading stories.
For Maggie, the River Floss is a place of wonder and imagination. She frequents the river, admiring its beauty. But as beautiful as it is, it’s also dangerous for girls who don’t know how to swim.
The play follows the working-class lives of the Tullivers. When Maggie’s father goes bankrupt, he has a stroke from all his grief. As Tom grows older, he must do his duties as a man and become the breadwinner for the family. Maggie wants to help, but with an already turbulent sibling relationship, Tom forbids her. Maggie watches her brother work and learn Latin and Greek, as she’s left at home with nothing but her dreams.
After the Tulliver family goes bankrupt, they are forced to sell Mrs. Tulliver’s handmade furniture and linens at an auction. Mrs. Tulliver reaches out to her snobby and wealthy sister, Mrs. Glegg (Marissa Otto) for help, but Mrs. Glegg simply lectures her sister on how Maggie is an embarrassment to the family.
When Maggie visits Tom at school, she encounters Phillip Wakem (Zane O’Connor), son of Mr. Wakem (Hershel Blatt). As the Wakems are wealthier than the Tullivers, it’s frowned upon for Maggie to converse with her brother’s schoolmate. But, since nothing stops Maggie, she speaks to Phillip anyways.
Phillip is pushed into the outskirts of society due to an ailment that causes him to walk on a crutch at all times. But this doesn’t bother Maggie. She asks Phillip about his education, and he offers to teach her Latin and Greek. They instantly become infatuated with each other. However, Tom forbids their relationship, owing to gender and class issues. Tom threatens to tell their father; Maggie, afraid of disappointing her brother, pledges never speak to Phillip again.
As the play progresses, Maggie grows older. The production uses three actresses to portray Maggie in different stages of her live. Years of oppression have taught Maggie to read the Bible every day and cater to housework with her mother. As an escape, Maggie visits her favourite place, the River Floss, in hopes that her once-wild imagination will come back to her.
As Maggie ages, she cannot forget her love for Phillip. Throughout Maggie’s internal battles at her oldest stage in the play (Dennis), she is visited by her former selves (Dufresne and Logan). Her youngest self (Dufresne) reminds her of her child-like, imaginative side, while her mid-self (Logan) reminds her not to be foolish and to stick to what she is told, regardless of how she feels. As the oldest Maggie struggles with having a voice, her younger selves provide her with layered opinions in hopes that she doesn’t forget her happiness from an earlier time.
You could tell The Mill on the Floss was performed by the graduating class. Their acting was extremely believable and well-refined. Dufresne, Logan, and Dennis all brought their own style to the role of Maggie. While each actress portrayed a different appearance of Maggie, they didn’t shy away from her original character. The three Maggies created a believable change in age, adding different layers to the Victorian female experience.
Comerford stole the show as Tom. His role as a brother to Maggie was remarkably authentic. Comerford captured the multifaceted pressures of being a son, older brother, and a man in the Victorian era—not to mention his stage fighting, which was so sophisticated it worried me.
The stage pieces and props emphasized the social class of the Tullivers, complete with a mechanical mill and an attic for Maggie’s room. The stone-like floors on set fit the atmosphere of a riverside. The costumes were also appropriate for the time period; each clothing item suited the respective classes of Victorian England. Maggie wore drab-coloured dresses until she went to a ball, where she wore a yellow puffy dress that fit Dennis like a glove.
Maggie struggles to obtain her dreams and her autonomy. But in the end, sadly, her gender and class are reminders that a Victorian woman must not have too much free will, or dream too big. And as for love, stay in your societal class.
Oh, and if you can’t swim, don’t go near the water.
The Mill on the Floss will continue to run in the MiST Theatre from March 3 to 5.