SALT LAKE CITY — I have a very good friend, named Jane, who once told me the story of an Anne Elliot. There was a time when Anne was young and in love. Her family was wealthy and her life was full of possibilities. But the counsel and persuasion of her family made her doubt her feelings and ultimately refuse the marriage proposal of sweet Frederick. He was heartbroken. The memories of these events became Anne’s bittersweet companions as the years past, her family’s wealth was lost, and her relations thoughtlessly put her down. Things got better for Anne in the end, though, because my dear friend Jane Austen wrote the tale.
Zion’s Theater Company has, thankfully, produced Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s beautiful Persuasion. It was my second time seeing this particular play onstage, and I’ve seen a different version on film. So, I should confess that I brought some baggage to the theater with me. I felt very critical towards the portrayal of Captain Frederick Wentworth (Adam Argyle), for example, that I saw on stage. He did an admirable job, but I had unreasonably high expectations. Perhaps it is s disease among Jane Austen‘s fans; we are fierce defenders of our romantic leads.
Larson’s adaptation of Persuasion leads the audience from Anne’s (and Frederick’s) memories to the real world of unfolding events, back and forth. The memory scenes are portrayed by Rebecca Minson and Kevin O’Keefe as the Young Anne and Young Frederick, respectively. Generally, their interactions are merely observed by the older Anne or Frederick, but there are a few times when that line between memory and reality blurs. I loved those moments, and I don’t dare spoil them for future audience members. I will say that Anne’s interaction with Frederick so surprised and touched me that tears came instantly. And I was pleased with Captain Wentworth’s contact, as well; it created a powerful image.
The director, Sarah Stewart, though, should be very careful about standing the Young Anne too close to the grown Anne, and this applies to the two Fredericks also. Both of the younger selves are taller, and we humans don’t often grow shorter. Moreover, the younger Anne Elliot (Rebecca Minson) showed less affection for Frederick than I would have liked. He was quite forthcoming about his feelings and I wanted to see more adoration, interest, and attraction behind her polite manners and embarrassed refusals. I needed more inner conflict from Minson, but was left to rely on the older Anne Elliot (Ronnie Stringfellow) for a sign of the pain she’d felt at turning Frederick away.
I highly enjoyed Stringfellow’s great performance as Anne Elliot, and the director could not have asked for a better actress. Stringfellow was a window; through her I saw what Anne thought, I felt what Anne was feeling. I loved Stringfellow’s acting, she looked wonderful, and thanks to her, I would like to become Anne’s best friend.
There were some terrifically comical and charming characters in Zion’s show. Anne’s father, Sir Walter, played by Rob Abney was a terrific snob; he got better and better, in fact, as the show progressed. Charles Musgrove (Jason Fullmer) was a nice contrast to all those women on stage with his relaxed smiles and congeniality. I think the chattering Musgrove sisters gave me a chuckle or two, as well. But the queen of comedy in Persuasion will always be Mary Musgrove, who was embodied head to toe by Alice Johnson. I shake my head in complete admiration of her. There is scene when Mary Musgrove is talking about Frederick Wentworth, whom she hasn’t met, with Anne, and Mary emphasizes how much she enjoys the sound of his name. Johnson demonstrates this in such a way that it can only be topped by her sensual caressing of Wentworth’s hand.
And I can’t forget Mary’s letters, always read with a snack. Letter writing is such a wonderful and endearing aspect of Jane Austen’s novels and I love the way Larson interprets it. Letters to and from the characters are delivered as monologues at the front of the stage, and the audience gets to focus on one character and feel what it’s like to be in their shoes.
I need to mention the accompaniment by Nathaniel Drew. His splendid compositions and sound design deserve much of the credit for the emotion I felt in this show. However, sound issues prevented me from hearing some of the memory dialogue, which was disappointing.
I would have liked having more to look at. It’s possible that I have been tainted by high-speed internet and the exorbitant amount of time I spend wandering Target, but I was craving a little visual interest in the form of set and lighting. This group had a small stage to work with and they did well to have specific set pieces (although, there was no credited set designer) for each scene. I could usually tell when the scenes took place at the Musgrove house versus the Elliot’s. But other scenes felt pieced together: Wentworth’s letter writing seems to take place in the Musgrove home, but the furniture isn’t there. As for the lighting (designed by Michael James), I wished for a slight change in color for the memory scenes, or some kind of variety when they are at the beach.
The first few scenes of the show felt rushed; the dialogue between Anne’s family members was dizzying, and even Anne spoke in fast forward mode before settling into her measured and reasonable pace. Perhaps it was an attempt at shortening the running time, but I felt it unnecessary.
I’ve pointed out some negatives, but the play was written and executed so well that the time flew by. I was able to let go of my preconceived characterizations and enjoy these actors in their production. Listening to Jane Austen in perfect accents and diction is a treat itself. It was a funny and touching night at the theater and I look forward to my next chance to see Persuasion onstage.