LOGAN — How should a reviewer approach a production of an oft-adapted classic? The test of any contribution to the Jane Austen corpus is two-part but simple: (1) is it likely to encourage newcomers to read the originals, and (2) is it offensive to those for whom those originals are sacred?
Lyric Rep’s Sense and Sensibility passes the first part of the test; the second part is more problematic.
When their stepfather dies, the Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are left essentially homeless, under the laws of entail of the time. Marianne is the dreamer, the romantic, open in her feelings and desires and her contempt for popular opinion: the child of sensibility. Elinor is more practical, more reserved, more patient with social convention: the child of sense. Sense and Sensibility is the story of the working out of these two traits, as the sisters are courted by men with their own problems of inheritance and social constraints. Jane Austen uses these conflicts to poke gentle fun at society, while illuminating timeless personality traits. It is the job of the adapter to squeeze Austen’s 300-page novel into a three-hour performance.
Lyric Rep’s production uses an adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan, and Lyric Rep was lucky enough to secure Sullivan as the director of this production. Abetted by a strong cast, Sullivan has given us a smoothly-flowing, energetic production, on an open and appealing set, designed by Dennis Hassan.
In general, the staging is clever and workable. The vertical columns spaced across the back of the stage are rotated to indicated different interior locations, and those at the sides serve as screens for projections indicating the outdoors and weather changes affecting the action. Servants (and occasionally leading actors) change the columns and furniture, sometimes only barely in time to change them back. Problems of timing (including Marianne’s bang on the keyboard well after she had risen from the instrument) will likely smooth out as the run continues.
Occasionally the staging does disappoint. For example, when Marianne and Willoughby part company, they do so in pantomime upstage while Elinor and her mother discuss their relationship for the audience downstage. When Marianne exits, Willoughby comes down to communicate his torment, but the action is forced, unnatural, and lacking in the power of that “torment” present in the book. The fact that the adapters have either changed the exact words (or Willoughby fluffed them) didn’t help.
Costumer Nancy Hills has chosen to keep the characters in the same attire throughout the play, with a few exceptions, and forgone the effort to make them strictly period. The servants in particular, wigged and elaborately liveried, seem to have been transported from Amadeus, overshadowing the relative simplicity of everyone else’s costume.
Casting and character portrayal of any Sense & Sensibility production will eternally be influenced by the 1995 Ang Lee film, and that is certainly true here. Kelly Rogers’s Elinor and Morgen Kerian’s Marianne are modeled on Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, and modeled for the good. Likewise, Wyn Moreno as Colonel Brandon and Trent Dahlin as Willoughby are reminiscent of Alan Rickman and Greg Wise in the same roles, and what more can one ask? Hugh Grant influences not only Mitch Shira as Edward Ferrars, but also Matt Mueller as John Dashwood. Shira and Mueller double as Robert Ferrars and Thomas Palmer, respectively, giving these actors an opportunity to display their range and talents.
These strong performances by the principals are matched by the supporting cast, with special mention to Madison Kisst as both the waspish Fanny Dashwood and the pregnant Charlotte Palmer. As Charlotte, Kisst gives us a memorable and poignant moment of self-reflection that is entirely her own.
Tamari Dunbar also does double duty, as the wronged Mrs. Dashwood and as the imperious Mrs. Ferrars. As Lucy Steele, Sceri Sioux Ivers escapes Fanny’s nose-pulling in this production, as the adapters have returned the blame for the revelation of her engagement to Edward to her sister Anne, where it belongs. Sir John (played by Toby Tropper) and Lady Middleton (played by Bailey Smith) seem younger than they should (but that may be a function of the movie adaptation), and Smith’s stolidity and Tropper’s bluff enthusiasm are exactly what the story needs. Mitzi Mecham, as Mrs. Jennings, provides a mercurial enthusiasm in her efforts to secure mates for any single girl in sight. Finally, Tyler Campbell plays no fewer than four characters, with his revelation of the Ferrars-Steele marriage giving him his best chance to shine.
My descriptions will be much more comprehensible to those steeped in Jane Austen than to newcomers, but that is true of the whole production. It is difficult to judge the degree to which an adaptation makes sense to one with no familiarity at all with the original. My judgment is that this production works very well as an appealing introduction to Austen, but unfortunately, one can have that introductory experience but once.
Satisfaction of the second part of the test of a successful adaptation is not so complete. No doubt there is a temptation, when writing new dialogue, to make it funny, and Hanreddy and Sullivan here have done so, but it still has to be appropriate. Marianne asking “are we seriously considering moving to Dorsetshire?” just jars, and there are many of these shocks in this production. Too many of these lines are just for cheap laughs (which they certainly got from a very appreciative audience).
I have to challenge the introduction of one scene: walking on the moors near Combe Magna, Marianne cries out for her lost Willoughby, and in a Wuthering Heights sort of dream scene, Willoughby appears, wielding a knife and apparently about to kill her. Perhaps this is the adapters’ way of conveying the idea that, having killed her spiritually, Willoughby might just as well now kill her physically. In any event, she is rescued by Colonel Brandon, who then goes on to rescue her spiritually as well.
As this interpolation indicates, if you insist on perfect fidelity to Austen, you won’t get it from Lyric Repertory’s Company production of Sense and Sensibility. But if you are satisfied with a reminder of just how great Jane Austen was, this production provides it.
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