REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For 21st Century Media
In this frigid season a truly scintillating stage adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” is thawing local audiences while a movie titled “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” made more than $5 million at the box office recently.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are legions of fans who will go to anything with the name “Jane Austen” on it. Fortunately for serious theatergoers an adaptation of a beloved Jane Austen classic at People’s Light in Malvern sets the creative bar much higher than a rapier’s blade inserted in a zombie’s skull.
Thanks go to the returning creative team of director Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, last seen at People’s Light with their popular 2014 stage adaptation of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Their new “Sense and Sensibility” is superior to their “Pride,” in part because that earlier production’s intriguing but awkward runway stage with “tennis court” seating for the audience left lots of room for country dancing but too much distance between the principal characters. Hanreddy and Sullivan have also trimmed and rearranged characters and scenes and added double roles for some of the cast which might upset some “Janeites” but makes for a more satisfying drama.
This time audiences will have the pleasure of reacquainting ourselves with the charming Dashwood sisters and their struggles to find happiness in the social swirl of Regency England. The high-strung and emotional Marianne embodies the Enlightenment sensibility of individual liberty and passionate commitment and her more cautious older sister Elinor, the traditional sense of moderation, virtue and restraint.
When their dying father leaves his fortune to their older brother, the Dashwood sisters and their mother must rely on the kindness of relatives to keep afloat financially and socially. In a culture where status and indeed, survival is determined by ownership of land and by income derived from inheritance, the Dashwoods are gentlewomen without either resource.
Their suitors, the charming but awkward Edward Ferrars and the dashing John Willoughby are in their own ways trapped by the same economic rules that dictate the paths the Dashwoods’ must follow. The brooding presence of their neighbor Colonel Brandon is a constant reminder that having a reputation for reliability and honesty may come at high cost.
Cassandra Bissell and Claire Inie-Richards as Elinor and Marianne are running an on stage marathon for nearly the entire play and embody their characters’ opposing emotions with grace, passion and authentic good humor. Sam Ashdown is wiry, intense and suitably swoon-inducing as Willoughby and Neil Brookshire charmingly portrays the reticent Edward Ferrars and his boorish brother Robert. Grant Goodman succeeds in making the dark and often overlooked Colonel Brandon into a complex and charismatic figure. Kevin Bergen is slyly comic and funny as the selfish John Dashwood and the sardonic politician-on-the-make Mr. Palmer.
Anchoring and nearly stealing half the scenes with the broad gestures, rolling tones and the vulgarity Austen intended are perfectly cast People’s Light veterans Marcia Saunders and Mark Lazar as Mrs. Jennings and her son-in-law Sir John Middleton who host the Dashwoods. They are the epitome of unfiltered, boorish but warm-hearted and almost desperate generosity, empty-nesters alone in the countryside.
The action occurs indoors and outdoors, in drawing rooms, bedchambers, streets and hillsides. A production of over two hours demands rapid, well-timed scene changes to maintain momentum. Linda Buchanan’s simple but smoothly effective set consisting of wall panels that double as windows are well integrated with veteran Dennis Parichy’s inspired lighting and the constantly shifting sounds of a now-vanished carriage-and-candle culture sprightly revived by sound designer Kevin Heard. Both Janeites and lovers of fashion history will admire the costumes of Marla Jurglanis, with some of the male characters finery outshining the ladies.