Adapted from Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel of the same name, Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Villette, written by artistic associate Sara Gmitter and directed by ensemble member Tracy Walsh, feels freshly relevant to audiences 170 years later in this lively, charming world-premiere production.

Protagonist Lucy Snowe, portrayed with equal parts pluck and sly wit by Mi Kang, tells the audience at the outset they won’t be seeing a fairy tale unfold, and by the normal standards of that day, she’s right. There may not be any romantic happily ever afters, but satisfying endings come in many forms these days.

Lucy leaves her native England in her early 20s with the thought of becoming an English teacher or nanny in Europe. Based on a tip from a shipmate on her voyage to the Continent–social climbing, boy-crazy Ginevra Fanshawe, played to delightfully flouncing comedic effect by Mo Shipley–Lucy ends up teaching at a boarding school in Villette. The city is modeled after Brussels, where Brontë herself taught in a boarding school. The novel draws significantly from other aspects of her life as well, and is a reworking of her first novel, The Professor, which was not published in her lifetime.

At the boarding school, Lucy is soon caught up in a lover’s triangle, or rather, more of a lover’s tangle, that sees a local doctor, John Bretton, played with plummy panache by Ronald Román-Meléndez, smitten with Ginevra even as Lucy pines for him. Ginevra treats Dr. John as a plaything as she pursues a suitor of higher social station, but Bretton can’t seem to see Lucy as more than his plan-Jane friend and mentee of his mother, a wise and charming presence in their lives as played by Renée Lockett.

Meanwhile, one of Lucy’s fellow teachers, the ever proper and oft judgmental Paul Emmanuel, seems to be harboring romantic feelings for her. He finds these feelings painfully difficult to express, and they meet with the disapproval of his cousin, Madame Beck (Helen Joo Lee, effectively chilly), who runs the school with an iron fist sans velvet glove. Paul, portrayed with great depth and flashes of humor by Debo Balogun, takes the longest, most surprising and touching emotional journey of any character in the play. The development of Paul and Lucy’s relationship is key to Villette’s success, and Kang and Balogun pull it off in believable and compelling fashion.

Even though the characters stop speaking French early on and the production does not overly emphasize the Continental setting, Mara Blumenfeld’s gorgeous costumes and Yu Shibagaki’s simple yet stunning set, both Lookingglass signatures, deliver plenty of period-specific enjoyment.

This Villette is recommended both as a date-night treat and a great family outing. My tween daughter got a particular kick out of Ginevra and her sumptuous period wardrobe. Seeing a compelling story of female empowerment provided an added benefit, at least from her dad’s perspective.

Villette runs through April 23 at Lookingglass Theatre.

Photo by Liz Lauren