CEDAR CITY — I have never adapted a novel into a stage production, but I imagine it must be a difficult process. Becausee most audiences aren’t interested in six plus hours in a theater, the content needs to be cut down significantly. So what ought to be included? What can the audience do without? And how can the characters evolve genuinely in such a short time?
Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan have adapted Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Hanreddy also served as director of this production for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. No adaptation can equal the original text, but I was fairly pleased with the way Hanreddy assembled and executed Austen’s work.
In the story, Margaret Dashwood and her daughters, Elinor and Marianne, lose their comfortable estate after the death of their patriarch. But they find a more humble residence owned by some kind relatives. Elinor has, in the former location, already become fond of Edward Farrars, and Marianne meets John Willoughby shortly after the move. Each daughter experiences love and heartbreak via these gentlemen, and the contrary manner with which each approaches these events can be (and has been) described as Sense and Sensibility.
Sullivan and Hanreddy (the latter of whom is also the director), delivered a good product. I was never bored and I was definitely invested in the show. But they built a less formal environment than I am used to from Austen. Edward, for instance, calls Elinor by her first name very early in this production. The aim may have been to move relationships along more quickly; but it is the restraint, the subtlety, and the suppressed that has always drawn me in. I was unhappy, as well, with Marianne’s illness, which didn’t progress in a natural way, and ultimately didn’t seem severe enough. Her infirmity is meant to be the turning point in her relationship with Colonel Brandon, so it ought to be serious, and he ought to be by her side. In this production, where the interactions between Colonel Brandon and Marianne were so uncomfortable, Marianne was far too obvious in her disdain, and the transition away from those negative feelings was sudden. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough time spent on Marianne’s sickness, Brandon’s kindness toward her, and any chemistry between them.
There were other pieces of this adaptation that seemed illogical. Marianne sprains her ankle and is seen dancing moments later. Mrs. Jennings takes a walk outside with the girls, and after three lines of dialogue the walk is completed. Marianne spent more time preparing to play her cello than she did actually “playing” it. And the many scenes when Lucy confides in Elinor did not make sense (especially after Elinor’s connection to him was announced in the Jennings’ home beforehand). The staging of that scene, and the volume of Edward’s name, could not have possibly been missed by Ms. Steele. Lastly, I just shook my head that Maryann Towne was cast as both Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars; Elinor and Marianne are introduced to a woman who previously had played their mother.
Some moments of speed were effective, though. Within minutes of Mr. Henry Dashwood’s death (John Oswald), John and Fanny arrive to take over the house, and there is barely time for grieving. This rapid series of events elevates the ridiculousness of the situation and the coarseness of Fanny and John; it made me feel so bad for Mrs. Dashwood. Another successful condensing was a scene where Brandon speaks with Elinor about a parish for Edward Ferrars. He exits the conversation as Edward takes his place to receive the news from Elinor.
I appreciated the clever set design by Hugh Landwehr, which included a tree comprised of several square panels, and allowed for smooth transitions between indoor and outdoor scenes. Scene changes were smooth and synchronized, generally done by actors or stagehands dressed as the servants of the house. For example, as they set Willoughby’s home, the performers draped fabric upon the furniture in unison, like a dance.
The Dashwood sisters are the center of Sense and Sensibility, and in this production they couldn’t be more different. Cassandra Bissell was very well cast as the moderate Elinor. She had a solid voice that spoke of a level head and her reactions always felt legitimate. It was fun to see her blush occasionally; she was convincingly emotional at those key times, often when reasoning with Marianne. Eva Balistrieri accurately portrayed the young and dramatic Marianne. She was strong, lively, and affectionate onstage. But her voice didn’t carry easily and it tended to sound whiny. Also, the formality and restraint that I mentioned earlier was missing from Balistrieri’s performance; she is a passionate character, for sure, but I believe greater subtlety would have added depth to her character.
The male counterparts to Balistrieri and Bissell were played by Quinn Mattfeld (as Edward Ferrars), Sam Ashdown (as John Willoughby), and Grant Goodman (as Colonel Brandon). Mattfeld was easily matched with Bissell, being very likeable and charming. He added an endearing humor to the production, often nonverbally. Ashdown’s Willoughby was handsome and extroverted enough to lure in the silly Marianne, and his dramatic shift away from her earned my pity. Goodman was appropriately opposite to Ashdown, and I admired his stalwart affection for Marianne, however illogical it seemed. He was true to Brandon’s strength and loyalty.
The character of Fanny was played by Nell Geisslinger, who was immediately detestable, as Fanny should be. She was quite charming to her husband John Dashwood (played by Kipp Moorman), convincing him that he need not help his half-sisters with money. Geisslinger perfectly captured the candy-coated selfishness of Fanny, while Moorman achieved the appearance of ignorant unkindness. When his stepmother hints that his monetary kindness would help her find a good home, John says, “If only,” in an oblivious way. Fanny receives some unhappy news from Ms. Steele (played by Sara J. Griffin), and I liked her over-the-top reaction, until she seemed to use her knitting needles like some kind of karate weapon (that moment pulled me out of the show). Griffin also created an unsatisfying portrayal. Rather than adjusting her character slightly from scene to scene, I felt that she played two different people.
After the repugnant John and Fanny, it was such a pleasant change to witness the warm welcome from Sir John Middleton (played by Larry Bull) and Mrs. Jennings (played by Kathleen Brady). I enjoyed Bull and Brady throughout the production, as they lit up each scene with exuberance. Mrs. Jennings’s daughter Mrs. Palmer (played by Bri Sudia) had a delightfully entertaining voice and seemed so genuine in her admiration for the younger Dashwoods. Her husband Mr. Palmer (played by Chris Amos) was aloof and unaware, to which Sudia reacted with layered emotions; she fascinated me.
The costumes were less than I expected; none of the women’s dresses really wowed me. Mrs. Palmer’s gown was my favorite, because it had more variety in texture and color. Costume designer Holly Payne dressed the men well. All looked very handsome and distinguished, with the exception of Robert Ferrars (played by Connor Bond), whose suit seemed ill-fitting. I admired Fanny’s creamy yellow coat, and the attire of the servants. I wished for a costume change now and then for Marianne and Elinor, at least to illustrate their fall from wealth. (At least there were different wraps used and gloves added.) I liked the hair styles in this production, but wish that Elinor’s coif was more defined in the front; it was curly, but not enough to be apparent from my seat, which was quite close to the stage. It felt plain, almost messy; I much preferred Marianne’s style.
Despite the weaknesses I have named, I did greatly enjoy some aspects of this production. The adaptation was true enough to Austen’s text, and I was happy to sit and listen. Hugh Landwehr’s set was lovely, in its neutrals and pastels, and the cast, especially Cassandra Bissell and Quinn Mattfeld, was enjoyable to watch. Elinor and Edward, with their happy ending, will always brings me back to this classic, in any adaptation.