Five actors, representing the Moors, stand in a line. In the center and slightly in front is the Leader of the Moors, wearing brightly colored patchwork trousers, a denim jacket over a white shirt, and a headdress of branches and flowers. The others wear T-shirts and trousers in various dull shades of gray, black, and tan.
The Moors, led by Jordan Laviniere (center) provide narration for Emma Rice's adaptation of Wuthering Heights at Chicago Shakespeare. Credit: Muriel Steinke

Every time I hear someone describe Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a “romance,” I die a little inside. It’s a portrait of dysfunction, abuse, codependency, and revenge. Which, sure, I guess is romantic in its own way, but c’mon: Heathcliff and Catherine are the Sid and Nancy of the moors. (Maybe too many people got suckered in by Kate Bush’s diaphanous sinuosity in her video for “Wuthering Heights.”)

Emma Rice’s adaptation (which she also directs) for Britain’s Wise Children in this Chicago Shakespeare WorldStage presentation leans unapologetically into the wildness and rage of the feral lovers. They’re first brought together as children when Catherine’s father, Mr. Earnshaw, rescues Heathcliff from the docks of Liverpool and brings him home to the titular house in the wilds of Yorkshire. But then Mr. Earnshaw dies. As do so many others in this grim tale. As did so many people surrounding Emily. (The Brontë sisters grew up in a house with a graveyard practically in their front yard.) As did Emily herself at age 30, shortly after the publication of her only novel.

Wuthering Heights
Through 2/19: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; audio description Sun 2/12 2 PM, open captions Wed 2/15 1 and 7:30 PM, ASL interpretation Fri 2/17 7:30 PM; Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600,, $59-$106

Mr. Earnshaw’s death (memorialized, like all the deaths to follow in this morbid parade, by his name being written in chalk on a small black slate) heightens the abuse Heathcliff suffers. Catherine’s sociopathic brother, Hindley Earnshaw, beats and taunts his foster sibling, possibly in part because Heathcliff is nonwhite. (Though his ethnic origins are never made clear, the novel is filled with references to Heathcliff’s darkness.) 

No wonder Heathcliff takes a Caliban-esque turn toward avenging himself on Hindley. His thirst for payback soon encompasses and enshrouds the decorous Linton family when son Edgar marries Catherine, the only person who shows Heathcliff kindness as a kid. (Which of course grows into unbridled passion as the hormones kick in.) Heathcliff in turn marries Edgar’s sister, Isabella, for spite and then abuses her for pleasure. And that cycle continues with his treatment of Hindley’s son Hareton, young Cathy Linton (daughter of now-dead Catherine and Edgar), and his own son, hypochondriacal Linton (played with comic verve by Georgia Bruce, who also plays Isabella). 

Over nearly three hours, Rice’s kinetic ensemble breathes life into these doomed figures, aided by a chorus known as the Moors, replacing the narrative function of housekeeper Nelly Dean in the original. (Jordan Laviniere, the leader of the Moors, is a particularly hypnotic figure.) It’s a smart choice, letting us know that the wild land itself keeps the secrets of the doomed humans who trod upon it.

Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume designs capture the paradoxical starkness and wildness of the landscape; Laviniere’s chorus leader wears bright colors and a headdress of blossoms and brambles, but the action is set against a dark stage with minimal scenery, except for flats representing Wuthering Heights and the Linton estate of Thrushcross Grange. (The closed doors and windows suggest the suffocating poisonous air trapped inside.) For furniture, there’s mostly just a sculptural pile of chairs—reminders of the people who are no longer alive to occupy them. The three-piece band (with occasional assists from other ensemble members), led by Pat Moran, delivers composer Ian Ross’s original music with gusto.

There is a void at the heart of this pitiless tale, and the production, despite skillful use of whimsical puppets and clever props, leans into the nihilism, harshness, and brutality of the story right until the glimpse of hope at the end. But Rice’s staging also leavens the proceedings with moments of absurdist grim humor. (Whenever TJ Holmes’s harried doctor shows up, you know there’s going to be another name on a chalkboard. Which, come to think of it, isn’t so much absurd as it is realist, given the tubercular times.)

Most importantly, she never lets us forget that the love of Catherine and Heathcliff, no matter its roots in childlike innocence, grew tangled and toxic, strangling all in its path. At the performance I saw, understudies Katy Ellis and Ricardo Castro played the roles with more passion than tenderness. It’s the right choice in a production that, underneath its postmodern concept, understands Emily Brontë’s near-pitiless story to its bones.