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WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Through Oct. 27

WHERE: O'Connell & Company, Cabaret in the Square Theatre, 4476 Main St., Amherst

ADMISSION: $13 to $18, dinner package available

INFO: 839-3949

"Jane Eyre." Is there anyone alive who doesn't know the story of perhaps the most successful Gothic romance of all time - the mother of every Harlequin Romance on every shelf in every city and town on three continents?

What Charlotte Bronte wrought over 150 years ago is a tale that engenders grief, joy, pity and admiration for the orphaned governess who at last finds true love in the arms of Edward Rochester. It has been adapted as a film no fewer than four times and as who knows how many plays. The task taken up by playwright and actress Lisa Hayes, then, is formidable: to produce a one-woman performance of "Jane Eyre" that can compete with those previously read and seen by her audience.

Happily she did so several years ago, and the results of her effort - which has toured widely in the United States and Europe - is now onstage at the Theater in Snyder Square. Hayes is an accomplished actress. Here she plays no fewer than 24 characters from child bullies to supercilious clergymen, all manner of servant - each with his or her idiosyncratic British accent - and of course, Rochester and Jane, the apparently star-crossed lovers.

Her adaptation of this great beast of a book into an 80-minute stage performance is commendable. Much is left out, out of necessity, but her selection of vignettes with which to tell the story anew marks this play with a freshness and brightness that is seldom conveyed. It also reveals with startling accuracy the book's use of unlikely plot turns and other devices that arrive just in time to save the heroine from the life of servitude and poverty into which she was originally thrust. Bronte's is a most polished form of melodrama.

Hayes' ability in bringing so many characters in and out of the foreground of this nearly Dickensian plot by convincingly conveying their silliness, bitterness or cruelty is quite a fine feat of vocal and gestural performance, not to mention memory. For this alone she must be commended. To breathe such an engaging and lucid liveliness into each of them is quite another matter, and for this Hayes gets a standing ovation from me.

Hayes' Jane is a feisty, clear-eyed little thing - bold and wary, wise beyond her years, subtly engaging and quite expressive. Her Rochester has a barrel-chested, booming voice, deep and as masculine as a woman can make it - think here of the women who read male voices in audio books. Not quite on the money, but if you close your eyes, you will hear the wit and mystery of a world-weary man astonished at his own feelings.

This is a fine play for your preadolescent or older children, too. Neither you nor they will be bored with this virtuosic display of the actor's work. Within the narrow confines occasioned by a one-person performance, "Jane Eyre" lives still and again - not quite a bodice-ripper, but as close as you'd find in popular distribution in early Victorian England.

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