This past summer of 2023, Excelsior Theater Company pursued a more dramatic tone with their original production of VALJEAN. This new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables reintroduced viewers to a more faithful performance of the classic story. Inspired by Hugo’s own words and a radio broadcast adapted by Orson Welles, the writers of VALJEAN set to work crafting a play with intense dramatic, emotional, and intellectual beats. But most importantly, it had a moral – a Catholic message: “Take pity on those less fortunate than yourselves and have charity for your neighbor.” (VALJEAN Stave 1, Scene 1).
In its most basic form, VALJEAN, and its source material Les Misérables, is a story about extremes. The Police Officer Javert personifies justice taken to an extreme, which is contrasted by the extreme mercy and generosity of the Bishop of Digne. Between them stands Jean Valjean – a convict tempted to vengeance for all the injustice he has endured for nineteen years in the galley, yet called to a life of charity with such intensity that he cannot resist.
A further study into these characters reveals that Javert, surprisingly, is not the villain of this story. Rather, his character arc flows from purpose to conflict as he first seeks to restore order in the world around him as he sees fit – that is, without recourse to the mercy and generosity of charity and grace, or accounting for the innate failings of mankind. Inevitably, he is brought face to face with the error of his belief. But, out of pride, he refuses to admit his mistake and, believing there is no peace for him anymore, commits suicide.
In contrast, Valjean’s arc leads from conflict to purpose. Initially, Jean Valjean is no more than the shadow of a man - a beast burning with hatred and thirsting for vengeance against those who wronged him; that is, until he is touched by the undeserved kindness of the Bishop of Digne. He, like Javert, is presented with a choice: that of Christ bleeding on the Cross with arms wide open to receive all of mankind, or that of blind, depraved human nature consuming everything in its despair. After a herculean struggle, grace prevails, and he chooses mercy and charity even though he risks his life and freedom in saving others.
Poor, naive Fantine is a credulous soul, taken advantage of at every turn and then discarded, burned, and abandoned. To Felix Tholomyes, she is a mere plaything; to the Thenardiers, she is a target for blackmail. Her unselfish love for her illegitimate daughter leads her into a life of depravity that she hates, but she is too weak to rise on her own. Through the goodness of Valjean, she is deflected from her course of self-destruction, but he is ultimately the unwitting cause of her death. He, the one person she felt she could really trust, fails to bring Cosette in time to her sickbed, and the sudden shock of disillusionment, together with the verbal abuse of Javert, overcomes her suddenly in an agonizing death scene.
Contrasted against the dramatic contest between Valjean and Javert is the touching love story of Marius and Cosette. In all of fiction, Marius and Cosette are arguably one of the most iconic classic romances, with the exception of Romeo and Juliet. Cosette has all her mother’s naivety, but Valjean plucks her out of the gutter and protects her, allowing her to flourish in a way Fantine never did. Marius, the young idealist, is a passionate champion for justice and goodness, but he is misguided by the anarchists of 1832. Valjean is first terrified of losing Cosette, who has become his whole world, but he finally sees the selfishness in his paternal protectiveness and makes the ultimate sacrifice, risking his life to save Marius for Cosette. This newlywed couple will have peace, love, and happiness like no other characters in the story, blessed by Valjean’s legacy: compassion and charity.
The unsettling note of Les Misérables, and so of VALJEAN, is the Thenardiers, the real
villains of the story. They have no redeeming qualities. Like rats, they burrow their way through the thread of the story, stealing, snitching, blackmailing, and
cheating their way through life. The really horrifying thing is the end of the Thenardiers. While Madame Thenardier ends her days in prison, Monsieur Thenardier, like a nightmare, disappears from the story to find new victims to prey upon… It is a stark contrast to the different ends the other characters meet. It’s all the more of a contrast when their daughter Eponine casts off the life of crime in which she was brought up and disowns her father in a striking showdown. Eponine is still a conflicted character, though. Raised as she was to look out for herself, she wants Marius, and only the thought that he will die with her leads her to reveal the information that ultimately reunites him with Cosette.
VALJEAN does not pull any punches in showing such wide extremes, painting a dark reality so that the light of Charity can shine brightly at center stage. This central theme is reflected in Excelsior Theater Company’s motto for VALJEAN: Only in the darkest of nights can you truly see the stars. Such a deeply significant message could not fail to leave a lasting impression on the cast and crew of VALJEAN, and the cast considered themselves privileged to convey it to audiences. The production group behind the play dedicated a lot of time crafting both the script and the final product in order to amplify the moral of VALJEAN: charity. Excelsior Theater Company looks forward to another season of enlightening and entertaining the St. Mary’s community.