Quarters that once sheltered automobiles and provided a living space for the nearby mansion’s gardener are now in the company of ambitious young actors and a stirring play. For the public unveiling of Asheville’s newest black-box theater—i.e., a small, unadorned performance space—the A-B Tech Drama Club presents a 19th-century play that emphasizes the history behind the theater’s own timeworn walls.
“We wanted to choose a play that was suited for this building,” says Peter Carver, drama instructor and director of the new Carriage House Theatre. The drama department moved into the new space this summer. According to Carver, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was the right fit. “We’re taking a play set in 1888 in the servants’ quarters and putting it here, in a space where servants actually lived,” he explains.
Miss Julie is a work of acclaimed psychological intrigue that confronts issues of class and power. The story is set in Sweden during a midsummer’s eve celebration—a time when the servants of a wealthy court were permitted to play music and celebrate beneath the stars. When Miss Julie, the court’s beautiful and mischievous daughter, decides to join the fun by asking a dashing senior servant named Jean for a dance, lighthearted flirtation quickly turns to a lust-driven affair.
Acting on impulse, Miss Julie and Jean run away and hide, attempting to break their stifling social roles. Forsaking his relationship with his fiancé, Jean allows himself to act on a long-harbored fantasy. “Jean [admits to having] a childhood crush on Miss Julie and has longed for her, but he’s also playing a game,” points out Merald Knight, who performs the lead male role. “I think that he is unable to resist her because she is right there drinking beer in the servants’ quarters”—unheard-of behavior in that time and place.
Jean and Julie spend the majority of the play getting to know one another, “wanting to fulfill [their] dreams together,” adds Knight.
This is where Strindberg starts his psychological tinkering, notes Carver. “Here’s somebody who has whatever she wants, yet the low-class folks are the ones having fun. For Miss Julie, it’s about getting down, lower and lower. For Jean it’s being low and reaching to higher places. Strindberg [is playing with] heavy realisms: You always want what you can’t have.”
But Miss Julie’s and Jean’s quiet moments can only exist in seclusion. When Jean’s fiancé discovers them tucked away in flagrante, the harsh reality that divides these characters descends on them tenfold.
The intimate quarters of the new theater, where the audience sits only feet away from the performers, gives the production powerful potential, says Carver. As Miss Julie, Rachel Adams hopes the tight space will “make the audience feel like they’re really there.”
To evoke the atmosphere of a midsummer’s eve, actors outside the theater will dance around a Maypole, accompanied by a fiddler. “Everything is happening just as it would on any other midsummer night of 1888. … This adds to the naturalistic style of the play,” emphasizes Carver.
But ultimately, internal growth trumps scenic details in Strindberg’s play. “We’re primarily concerned with the psychological evolution of the characters,” says Carver. “Miss Julie teaches us that we are who we are—but that does not limit potential.”