“Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer.”
“Do you call me happy, Marianne? Ah; if you knew! And can you believe me to be so while I see you so wretched!”
– Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 29
Happiness and suffering, and the emotional extremes that cause it, is an important theme in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that was well served in a new stage adaptation of her novel premiering at the Book-It Repertory Theatre on June 3rd at the Centre House Theatre, Seattle Center. It is the Rep’s fourth Austen novel to stage production after the highly successful Pride and Prejudice in 2004, Persuasion in 2008, and Emma in 2010. Their interpretations of Austen are always brisk, lighthearted and memorable. Jane Austen has been very good to the Rep, and obviously, audiences have felt that the Rep has been likewise to Jane Austen.
Even though Sense and Sensibility is not as light, bright and sparkling as Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, it may be the most adaptable of her works for the stage. At 200 years old it remains a compelling tale touting a favorable list of dramatic attributes: dual heroines with divergent personalities; three red herring heroes who are really anti-heroes in disguise; and an incredible assortment of unscrupulous and humorous minor characters that add levity and balance to a story that is quite seriously entrenched in 19th century British inheritance laws and the plight of women who were ruled by them. Heady stuff for any playwright to embrace and adapt. Even more so for the lucky audience if they get it right.
The two heroines of this cautionary tale are Elinor (Kjerstine Anderson) and Marianne (Jessica Martin) Dashwood – one with too much sense, and the other with not enough. Each of the sisters reacts differently to their life tragedies and budding romances. Jessica Martin’s Marianne was all pure unbridled emotion: extreme, exuberant, exasperating! Never loving by halves, she gushed about dead leaves, poetry and her beaux Willoughby with a passion leaping into Bronteism. Marianne also dips into the depths of despair after being thrown-over by her suitor, wearing her down and into a serious illness. We had wished this had been given more attention and that Marianne had not rebounded back to herself with such cheerful alacrity.
Kjerstine Anderson as the solid, staid and correct sister Elinor was surprisingly regal, imposing and privately snarky – a different interpretation than I had experienced in my reading of the novel, or in any of the movie adaptations. Questioning my previous conclusions, was Austen’s Elinor as introspective, subtle and guarded as I had thought? Anderson did a commendable job as Austen’s anchor of reason and rationality, albeit too emotionally at critical moments. I am uncertain if this change in characteristics was artistic license or by direction, but it altered the divergence in the sisters personalities and lessened some of Austen’s critical plot points.
The three heroes (or anti-heroes): Edward Ferrars (Jason Marr), Col Brandon (David Quicksall) and John Willoughby (Aaron Blakely) were sensitively cast as the affable nerd, the gallant geezer and the charming cad to extreme satisfaction. Austen gave us an interesting assortment of suitors for our heroines. Often we are uncertain who the hero is because of major character flaws that act like red-herrings. In this interpretation (happily) Edward did not stutter, but he was so innocuous we wonder what Elinor saw in him. Really wonder! Marr was more than a bit of a milquetoast, and so was Quicksall as Col. Brandon who barely uttered a line for several scenes (to disconcerting effect) until he finally finds his voice making it all the more moving and admirable. Well done. When Blakely’s Willoughby gallantly arrives to rescue the injured Marianne in a billowing greatcoat, our expectation of a Byronic hero was totally fulfilled. *swoon* The fact that he looked like a young Jonny Lee Miller did not hurt either. No wonder Marianne lost all sense. Who wouldn’t? He was equally convincing in relaying his conflicted loyalties of money vs. love.
The minor characters in Austen’s tale are so endearingly flawed and humorous, supplying the comedy to offset the tragedy. Of note were the scheming and duplicitous Miss Lucy Steele (Angela DiMarco); selfish and manipulative Mrs. Dashwood (Emily Grogan) and her equally unappealing husband Mr. John Dashwood (Shawn Law); gossipy matchmaker Mrs. Jennings (Karen Nelson); and the jovial and obliging Sir John Middleton (Bill Johns). They brought levity to Jen Taylor’s energetic dramatization which at times had its charms and foibles. The narrative faithfully followed Austen’s own right down to some exact quotes. Huzzah! Gone though were Austen’s cynical underpinnings, subtle puns and measured pacing – all replaced by an emphasis on humor and breakneck speed. Scenes quickly altered with the draw of a curtain across the stage taking us from London to the country within seconds. Actors changed costumes by adding layers as they delivered lines on stage. Spoken dialogue shifted to narrative recited directly from the novel in one breath. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Austen encapsulated and accelerated for the modern stage.
We enjoyed every line and every moment, but we were happy to wind down afterwards with a cup of tea and the novel.
Book-It’s Sense and Sensibility runs at the Center House Theater thru June 26th
Photos © Alan Alabastro 2011
© 2011 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose