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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - Page updated at 02:00 AM

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Theater Review

Latest Book-It production needs a better edit

Seattle Times theater critic

A performance that ambitiously spans 50 years in the life of a single character, from childhood to granny-hood, could be cringe-worthy.

Or it can be exhilarating, as it is when Jane Jones portrays Rhoda Katherine Manning, in "Rhoda: A Life in Stories," a world-premiere Book-It Repertory Theatre adaptation of tales by noted author Ellen Gilchrist.

Enacting Rhoda as a bratty little girl stomping around in hot-pink overalls, or as an alcoholic trophy wife diving into a steamy extramarital affair, Jones fires on all jets. Foolhardy, obnoxious, wistful, seductive, enraged — Jones uses her mobile face, her entire body really, to capture Rhoda's many (and mercurial) moods.

But once the versatile Jones establishes her prowess in the part (like, immediately), a question nags.

Is Rhoda, the willful protagonist in more than 20 short stories by Gilchrist, worthy of such extensive theatrical treatment?

Only fitfully, in this rambling production scripted by Rachel Atkins and staged by Sheila Daniels. Atkins adapts material from 10 of Gilchrist's stories into a chronological recounting of Rhoda's life — with some big gaps.

But the pithy art of the short story is so different from the broad arc of a novel. And where episodes from discrete tales have been loosely stitched together, the seams show.

On stage

"Rhoda: A Life in Stories," by Ellen Gilchrist, adapted by Rachel Atkins, Wednesdays-Sundays through May 12, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$32 (206-216-0833 www.book-it.org).

The constant is the play's narrator and human juggernaut, Rhoda, first seen as a self-dramatizing, protofeminist tomboy prone to epic tantrums.

Rhoda hates when the big boys (led by her amiable brother Dudley Jr., played by Troy Fischnaller) won't let her play with them. She gets pissy when her aunt's wedding isn't grander. And as a sex-obsessed adolescent, she's apoplectic when her father uproots the family once again.

Rhoda's sweet, ineffectual mother, Ariane (Kelly Kitchens), draws the brunt of her daughter's ire. Rhoda is really a Daddy's girl, and her ambitious father, Dudley Sr. (heartily played by Jim Gall) is the love of her life.

Rhoda tells us a lot about herself that gets repeated later. There's her wild temper, her steely daring, her alcoholism (and recovery from it) and, above all, her narcissism.

But what provides context in a short fiction can be filler in a play clocking in at 2 ½ hours. And Daniels doesn't consistently rein in or focus the play's multiple agendas and many characters (played by 10 actors).

There are enjoyably funny passages in "Rhoda," mostly in the boisterous childhood scenes. And there are keenly bittersweet bits too, such as the middle-age Rhoda's fantasies of a fling with a Mexican bullfighter.

Gilchrist's stories define a certain kind of gal, in an American era when even the most bright, affluent women had few options beyond marriage and motherhood.

But how to best dramatize that? Or Rhoda's transformation into an astute writer, after years of vanity, indolence and recovery? (A spoken preface to the play, using Gilchrist's own words about the challenges of autobiographical fiction, doesn't suffice.)

You can't blame Book-It for trying. But "Rhoda: A Life in Stories" would do better using fewer tales to show us more of who Rhoda is and why we should care.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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