The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The woman enters the room with a large smile on her face. She holds her head high and greets her audience. It is the teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and she is in her prime.
The word prime applies not only to the character of Jean Brodie, but to the role itself, which is being played with an uncommon skill and sensuality by Cynthia Nixon, in the dexterously extracted production playing at the Theatre Row.
Based on the 1961 novella by Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the story of an uncommonly progressive schoolteacher at an uncommonly conservative school in Scotland. The title character is a young woman who adores teaching. She is a teacher, “first, last and only,” she tells her students. And she is in her prime, she states proudly. She is not just a schoolteacher – her educational methods go far beyond the classroom. She takes her girls to museums, to the theater and to the opera. She neglects the mundane subjects like math, preferring to focus on exposing her students to beauty and art. She is proudly uncommon and equally uncouth, taping photographs of Mussolini over a poster bearing the motto, “Safety first!” She selects favorites of “her girls,” and directs her uncommon passion and energy to them, predicting what their futures will hold, frequently telling them how much she loves them.
The question of whether her love is truly selfless is frequently raised. While Jean smiles her at her girls, her smile is both confident and sly. When she states how much she loves them, it questionable how much of that love is based on her knowing how much they love her. She delights in herself more than anything else. This delight is demonstrated skillfully by Nixon. As Brodie, she carries herself straight and tall, her head held at a slight angle, her smile broad and bold. She gleefully twirls across the classroom, the skirt of her bright pink dress billowing about her.
Two teachers at the school share a passion for the prime Miss Brodie – Gordon Lowther, the music teacher and Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher. Lowther, played by John Pankow, is a sweet, mild-mannered man who wants to marry the woman. Lloyd, is married man and father of many, who wants to bed her – again. Played by Ritchie Coster, he possesses a rakish sensuality, coming from his own self-deprecation that is both appealing and appalling. He is obsessed with his love for Miss Brodie, and he hates that.
These emotions also shared by Sandy, the plainest and most intelligent of Miss Brodie’s favorites. Played with a weighty self-awareness by Zoe Kazan, this young woman’s coming-of-age is heartbreaking to watch. Once worshiping, now hating her formerly favorite teacher, Kazan delivers a thoughtful and painful Sandy, surviving an extended scene of being completely nude alongside a fully-clothed character with uncommon grace.
The show manages a delicate balance of innocence and experience, between Brodie’s students and herself. She speaks to them frankly about sex at the age of 11, stating which one of them will be an uncommon beauty and experience love very soon, but they respond by giggling and tickling each other.
As her girls age, Miss Brodie’s problems increase. Her passion for politics soon spreads to fascism and General Franco in Spain, resulting in her inevitable downfall and banishment from her school, stemming from the betrayal of someone who was once one of her favorites.
The question left with the audience is that of who is Jean Brodie? Is she a heroine? A villain? A well-meaning, but misguided woman? Or a calculating, malicious female who wants to destroy those who have what she does not? His her dismissal triumphant, or is tragic? Nixon’s performance, raiding sexuality even while wearing a buttoned tweed jacket and low-heeled lace-up shoes, brings all of the complexities of the woman to the audience, creating a character that is both unusual but completely relatable. When Brodie is banned from the school, her confusion and despair is extremely sympathetic.
The story, though set in Scotland in the 1930s, is timeless in its themes. Progressive women have and continue to cause commotion. People admire them, but people fear them. People turn against them to stifle the changes they are creating. One wonders what Maureen Dowd would think of this show? Or Hillary Clinton?
“My credo is to stimulate and enlighten,” Jean states proudly, when questioned about the color of her bright pink gown. This show fulfills her credo quite well.