Kate Hamill's Vanity Fair, a play based on the 1848 novel by James Makepeace Thackeray, opens with a telling first line. The Manager, a central narrator who often breaks the fourth wall, informs the audience that "there are no morals here."
"It is a very amoral play," says Robbie Thomas, director of the Village Repertory Co.'s production of Vanity Fair, now onstage at Woolfe Street Playhouse. "Morality can't get in the way of your life is basically what he's saying to start off with."
Indeed, the characters in Vanity Fair are often unconcerned with right versus wrong and instead abide by the Machiavellian principle that the ends justify the means. And that is particularly applicable to Becky Sharp.
Becky, an orphan born into poverty, is not satisfied with her lot in life. She craves the affluence, comfort, and privilege held by the elite members of high society. Due to the limitations for women at the time — the play is set in early 1800s England during the Napoleonic Wars — Becky is aware that the only path to securing that lifestyle is to find a wealthy, impressionable husband.
"She uses her wits and feminine charm to try to climb her way to the top," says Marissa Rothfarb, who plays Becky. "She's full of deception throughout the play, and I think the audience gets to see her lie her way out of situations, but then that kind of gets her into bad situations, too."
"She makes choices that aren't always in her best interest or anyone else's," Thomas says. "There's a bit of a selfishness there. But when she hits rock bottom, she can pull herself back up — to an extent."
Becky, who is often described as an antiheroine, remains "easy to root for" despite her shortcomings and misdeeds, Thomas says.
"[Hamill] does a pretty good job of telling the story through Becky's eyes, but the words on the page can only do so much. What Marissa and I have gone through is what's not on the page," he says. "We have to see how certain lines hit Becky and see the effect her actions have on people. Becky, while being strong, independent, and a little selfish, also has moments when she can take some of the blame and realize her actions do affect people."
There are limits to that self-reflection, however, as Becky will often choose not to care about how her actions and decisions impact others. "But at least she sees that she has an effect on these people and, at times, tries to make amends for what she's done and get some redemption," Thomas says.
Although Vanity Fair can be considered a period piece, both Thomas and Rothfarb believe it carries a sense of timelessness.
"This is a story that could happen now. It happens to be set in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars, but it is a story about people," Thomas says. "And people tend not to change with what drives them and what pushes them."
"It's definitely a time-period piece, but I think it feels modern," Rothfarb says. "I think a lot of the scenes and motifs and situations that happen to the characters are applicable to everyone sitting in the audience."
For Rothfarb, Becky's early circumstances closely mirror those of many people her age.
"I am a senior in college right now, and Becky starts out in the play very young, just having graduated from school," she says. "So that's already like, 'Oh gosh, that's coming up in my life.' Finding a job or occupation and finding a place in society — that's a struggle of 20-somethings in today's climate."
Ultimately, Thomas views Vanity Fair as a "very human story," one that could happen at "any time in human history."
"I just want people to come away with a new respect for the humanness of this story, the struggles that befall everybody. It's based on a strong, independent woman who has to work twice as hard," he says. "But anyone could have this struggle. It's not a play just for women, and it's not a play just for men. It's a story that could happen to anyone. You can't tell what you'd do in that situation until you're in that situation. Lots of it is — if you were put in that circumstance, what would you do to get what you want and need? I hope people identify with that and see themselves in that story."