|Sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood bond over music.|
With his spiritual eyes trained on the Oversoul, Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn't find much of value in the work of Jane Austen:"I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," he confided to his diary in 1861, going on to explain that Austen novels "seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow."
A scattershot critique, to be sure, with some home truths from the Sage of Concord's perspective: nothing of the transcendentalist can be found in Austen's fiction. Its focused realism, with judicious use of coincidence, is germane to the development of the English novel. A work like "Sense and Sensibility" unsurprisingly adapts well to the stage, which remains hospitable to stories told close to the bone of everyday life.
Despite the technological advances and receptivity to narrative wonders, theater will always love full-fledged characters, even those tipped toward caricature, in situations that present problems of identity, purpose, social adjustments, and codes of behavior ranging from mere etiquette to the most consequential morality. Verisimilitude is the watchword, an article of faith in the significance of the ordinary.
The real life of a rural, well-placed social class in early 19th-century England is all the expansiveness Austen needed. And the constraints upon female achievement and happiness cannot fail to strike sparks in today's readers and audiences. Thus "Sense and Sensibility," as adapted by Jessica Swale, becomes apt to inaugurate the 50th-anniversary season of Indiana Repertory Theatre. The opening-night performance Friday confirmed the rightness of that choice, especially with the deep experience of the production team (the peerless Peter Amster directs) and the return of a favorite IRT actress, Priscilla Lindsay.
In Austen's world, marrying well was all that could carry family prospects forward among the landed gentry. "All that interests in any character introduced is...Has he or she money to marry with, and conditions conforming?" Emerson fretted. The plot of "Sense and Sensibility" crucially makes clear that male fortunes, too, might depend on the whims and notions of rich relatives, or their untimely demises.
Yet, by focusing on two young adult sisters of contrasting personalities, one representing "sense" and
the other "sensibility," Austen emphasizes that the constraints fell disproportionately on women of all temperaments. The overwhelming force of love, so well delineated in this production, finds victory only after negotiating a path through social and financial barriers, aided by luck.
"Sense," impersonated by Elinor Dashwood, takes the long view, guards its tongue, and tries to match ambition to the likelihood of fulfillment. "Sensibility" in Marianne Dashwood captures the burgeoning romantic notion of fulfillment as a natural right and the expression of emotions keenly felt as essential to vitality. Helen Joo Lee and Lereyna Jade Bougouneau, respectively, captured the attention from the start and held it throughout their characters' travails and often fleeting pleasures. Expressions and gestures matched each shift in circumstance to their enduring traits.
|Mrs. Dashwood cautions Margaret about bringing nature indoors. |
They have been displaced, along with their mother and juvenile sister, from their home in Sussex to the remote countryside of Devon by a shift in family fortunes. This early displacement in the story is a triumph of Austen's plotting and key to the way in which the author exposes character. The vagaries of accident clearly fall short of what Emerson took to be formative in human life, but most people feel the force of the unplanned in the lives they bring into the theater and the lives they try to set aside when they plop into their reading chairs.
There's much more wit in Austen than Emerson gave her credit for. In this adaptation, it's quite evident, especially in the first act. The humor is broad at times, as in the satirical portrayal of Devan Mathias as the cruel usurper Fanny Dashwood. It's one of her several roles, matched by the versatility of Ron E. Rains as John Dashwood and a few others.
|Mrs. Jennings watches over the sisters in London.|
And the comic zest Priscilla Lindsay could always bring to the stage is given full play in her characterization of Mrs. Jennings, the imperturbable Devonshire matchmaker and gossip who attaches herself to the Dashwood sisters. How good to see her once again practically bursting a juicy role at the seams! Her voice alone is a source of theatrical nutrition.
Other actors, made over entirely at times by costume designer Tracy Dorman, accomplished astonishing transformations. As the earnest, adorably tongue-tied suitor Edward Ferrars, Casey Hoekstra did double duty as his doltish brother Robert — twinned in appearance but opposite in behavior. He also played a creature of sardonic wit as Thomas Palmer, the put-upon husband of one of Devan Matthias' characters. The adeptness of a large portion of the cast in sliding into and out of characters had a presto change-o magic about it.
Holding steady in the same roles throughout were La Shawn Banks as Colonel Brandon, whose slowly
emergent heroism would later be a quality so prominent in Charles Dickens characters, and Nate Santana as the flawed, dashing figure of John Willoughby.
Claire Kashiman as the little Dashwood sister Margaret gave enthusiastic credibility to a budding-scientist character clearly designed by the adapter to suggest female capability in conventionally male pursuits. The 19th century abounded in these strong women whose way was often largely blocked as they matured.
|Colonel Brandon eavesdrops on London gossips.|
The English accents seemed well-schooled, and when lines escaped my ears and understanding from time to time, I have to attribute it in part to an inability to do the lip-reading everyone was used to in pre-mask days. In my case, it was due to a temporary blurring of distance vision by recent cataract surgery. Putting that aside, the clarity of articulation seems to have been consistent opening night.
The language moved as nimbly as the cast did physically, with the scenic design of Ann Sheffield following suit, and platforms shifting smoothly into place to mark scene changes. Dawn Chiang's active but not overbusy lighting design accompanied such changes intelligibly.
The jolts in the characters' lives are fortunately not imposed upon the audience as the Dashwood story unfolds, caught up in "the wretched conventions of English society," keyed to the perpetual concerns of money and perfect unions, charmed by earthly beauty and blissfully ignorant of the Oversoul.
[Photos by Zach Rosing]