The cast of A Passage to India(Photo © John Haynes)
The cast of A Passage to India
(Photo © John Haynes)
When E.M. Forster published Howard's End, the novel that guaranteed his ranking among first-rate English novelists of the 20th century, he prefaced it with his famous "only connect" epigraph. By 1924, when he brought out A Passage to India, he clearly despaired of anything approaching truly successful connection among people -- no matter how earnest they are. Undoubtedly, it's for this reason that an air of melancholy hangs like a stifling heat wave over the revered author's work and over the Shared Experience stage adaptation that director Nancy Meckler has given an intriguing gloss. The metaphor that Forster chose to make his sorrowful point was India under British rule -- a subject that fascinated, infuriated, and alarmed the citizens of both countries for years, and still does. As Forster saw it from visits paid to the colony during the middle of the Raj and also from deep friendship with a pupil of his named Syed Ross Masood, imperialistic behavior as a national policy precluded possibilities for enduring communication between individuals.

The plot that Forster chose to illustrate his belief focuses on Dr. Aziz (Alex Caan) of Chandrapore, a man with a loving nature who attempts to bridge cultural differences but runs afoul of his intentions when hosting two Englishwomen. Responding to Adela Quested (Fenella Woolgar) and her intended mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Susan Tracy), because they're intent on meeting Indians rather than observing them from exclusive club verandas, Aziz invites the ladies on an excursion to the area's sole tourist attraction, the mysterious Marabar Caves.

In the caves, both women undergo life-altering experiences. Mrs. Moore's equanimity is thrown off balance as a result of the booming, invasive echo she hears in the first cave that she enters and from which she hastily retreats. Adela, whose surname signals her desire to broaden a narrow outlook but doesn't entirely hint at her sexual repression, comes to believe that she's been assaulted by Dr. Aziz. Her accusations lead to a trial and to the doctor's release when Adela retracts her testimony. The shift comes too late for Aziz to reclaim a favorable attitude towards the English, despite his long-standing bond with Fielding (William Osborne), the principal of the local government college.

Described over the last 80 years in phrases boasting adjectives like "symphonic," A Passage to India is no day at the beach to transfer to the stage. But director Meckler has taken on similar challenges before with, for instance, Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina, neither of which is easy to lift from between Modern Library hardcovers. Working her charms, Meckler and adapter Martin Sherman -- aided by designer Niki Turner's wall of beaten bronze, movable riser, and white linen costumes -- make Forster's masterpiece into an engagingly Chekhovian comedy-drama.

Meckler's at her best in scenes where Forster's characters strive sincerely to connect or labor against the notion, with Adela's stuffed-shirt fiancé Ronny (Simon Scardifield) among the latter contingent. The early scene in which Dr. Aziz initially encounters Mrs. Moore at a mosque and a later section in which Adela and Ronny test their feelings for each other are touchingly satirical. When the Marabar Caves daytrippers ride an elephant, Meckler amusingly handles the jaunt by using only the 11-member cast as elephant and passengers. Meckler and Sherman also manage to include many of Forster's subtler giveaway details, like a sequence involving a borrowed collar stud. But they can't clarify the homoerotic relationship between Aziz and Fielding because Forster, who talked of loving his friend Masood, never publicly clarified his own homosexual longings.

By 2004, story-theater devices have become highly sophisticated, and Nancy Meckler is a chief sophisticate. Facile as she is, she runs up against one daunting obstacle here: the Marabar Caves. To suggest the travails that Adela and Mrs. Moore encounter, she resorts to stylized movement. Negotiating the gloomy interiors, Adela steps over players pretending to be rocks and executes a series of other odd body contortions. Sound designer David McSeveney throws in some feedback to simulate the echo that Adela and Mrs. Moore carry on about for the rest of the piece. None of this adds up to the overwhelming and, eventually, heavily symbolic effect that the caves have on the frightened women. Forster intends them to be staring into the unfathomable abyss that is India and recoiling from it in abject defeat. Meckler and team don't make it happen, which leaves this enterprise lacking what that the other great novelist of the period, Joseph Conrad, called a heart of darkness.

This is no fault of the actors, who are at one with the material. Alex Caan, darkly handsome, embodies Dr. Aziz's humanity and eventual disappointment and rage. Susan Woolgar's Adela is appealing even though accurately shallow and, well, questing. Susan Tracy and William Osborne lambently convey the best Brit intentions, while Simon Scardifield's smug Ronny neatly portrays the precise opposite. The ensemble, especially Antony Bunsee as a very spiritual guide, invaluably assists Meckler and Sherman. In concert, they make more than a passable passage to Forster and simultaneously send a message to today's audiences about the inadvisability of one country shoving its wide-shouldered way into another without first giving the undertaking plenty of thought.