Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

at the Theatre Building

D.H. Lawrence originally planned to name his last major novel “Tenderness”; he also considered “John Thomas and Lady Jane,” the playful terms his characters use to describe their sex organs. Both titles would have been appropriate; that’s what makes Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as the book was finally called, so lastingly remarkable. Even in our explicit age, the connection Lawrence makes between emotional tenderness and earthy eroticism is unusual. If our society is much more candid than the one that suppressed Lawrence’s 1928 novel, it still links sex to power more than to affection, and identifies manliness in terms of prowess rather than passion. In the age of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lawrence’s sensitive, sensual Oliver Mellors is as rare and wonderful a figure as he was when Lawrence invented him.

Mellors is the working-class hero who arouses the vitality of Lady Constance Chatterley, the repressed young wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley, an aristocrat crippled in the recent slaughter of World War I. (Joanne Witzkowski Kalec’s costumes establish the time frame perfectly.) At first resisting her attraction to her social inferior–Mellors is the gamekeeper on her husband’s country estate–Constance finally gives in to her feelings; she finds Mellors to be the gentle, responsive, sensitive lover she thought didn’t exist, while Mellors, embittered by a previous marriage, is nourished by the humanity beneath Constance’s upper-class facade. “I don’t want a woman as couldna shit nor piss,” he enthuses.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in England and the United States for 30 years after it was written because of lines like that, and this: “We fucked a flame into being.” Words like fuck, shit, and piss are commonplace now–but consider how rarely they’re used in positive, natural contexts, and you’ll see how radical Lady Chatterley’s Lover remains.

Keith Miles’s stage version of the story–written in 1981 for the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, England, and only now receiving its U.S. premiere–is quite effective in its compression of Lawrence’s sexual politics, which link men’s subjugation of women to the pursuit of position and ecologically destructive “progress”; and John Carlile’s staging for the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble captures the script’s blunt beauty. Though the production falls short of conveying the quasi-mystical resonances of the book’s sexual themes, it movingly communicates the emotional intensity Lawrence invested in his characters. The earthy, sensitive Mellors, the tense and passionate Constance, and the arrogant and fragile Clifford are beautifully played by Tracy Letts, Jennifer Roberts, and Kevin Theis respectively; among the supporting cast Sarah Cooper is especially good as Mrs. Bolton, the doting housekeeper-nurse who’s happy to let Constance sleep with Mellors so she can have Clifford all to herself.

Eschewing a naturalistic style that might reduce the story to soap opera, Carlile presents the audience with artfully shaped images. The woods surrounding the Chatterleys’ estate are depicted not by standard set pieces but by John Musial’s large, lovely landscape paintings in gilt-edged frames; under Jon Gantt’s generally subdued lighting they set an idyllic tone that’s memorably rent by a sudden hellish descent into a coal mine. Evan Chen’s stylistically eclectic music suggests the disjointed nature of a society ripped apart by war and industrial revolution. The love scenes between Constance and Mellors, played unabashedly nude, are staged as stylized, almost balletic tableaux that convey the eloquent eroticism of the play’s source. There’s plenty of tenderness in BTE’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a good deal of John Thomas and Lady Jane as well.