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Sense and Sensibility

Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory

Based on the Novel by Jane Austen

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

February 13, 2013

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I love Jane Austen.  I went through something of an “Austen geek” phase when I was younger.  Oh, who am I kidding? I’m still an Austen geek!  I’ve read most of her books—a few several times—and any time there is a new TV or film adaptation I am eager to see it (on a side note, anyone who loves Austen and hasn’t checked out the excellent web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” needs to do so, now).  OK, digression over.  This is about Sense and Sensibility at the Rep, which was just the right show to see the day before Valentine’s Day, as it is an excellent celebration of love in several forms, from familial to romantic, and as usual, the Rep does it right.

This production was fast-paced and thoroughly engaging.  The story of the Dashwood sisters—dependable, even-keeled Elinor (Nancy Lemenger) and impulsive, intensely emotional Marianne (Amelia McLain) is very well presented, focusing on the sisters’ relationships with one another and with their mother (Penny Slusher) at least as much, if not more so, than the relationships of the women with their suitors.  A common myth about Austen is that her novels are all about lonely women who want to get married, but they are about much more than that.  The relationships among the women are just as important as the marriages, and often more so.  Because of the social restrictions of Austen’s day, single women often spent their days solely in the company of sisters and family, and when they did mingle with the rest of society, strict rules of propriety governed their actions.  These strict rules are challenged by the romantic Marianne, who ignores the advances of the honorable but socially awkward Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) to pursue the impetuous Willoughby (Charles Andrew Callaghan), who has his own social obligations to meet unbeknownst to Marianne.  Meanwhile, older sister Elinor is attracted to her sister-in-law’s brother, the shy Edward Ferrars (Geoff Rice), not knowing the secret that he has hidden which threatens to derail their relationship before it really has a chance to begin.

This is more than a romance.  Often Austen’s novels are dismissed as mere romance stories when there is much more to them than that.  There is cultural satire, wit and drama, and all are represented well in this production, with all the manipulative and domineering relatives and scheming social climbers, and struggles to live up to–or rise above–society’s expectations for women and men at the time. The adaptation is fast-paced and very funny at times, with some of the inherent difficulties in adapting a novel to the stage dealt with in fun ways, such as what to do with the third Dashwood sister, Margaret, who isn’t mentioned in the novel very often so here, rather than being cut out entirely she has become and offstage character who is talked about but never seen.  This may seem odd to read about, but on stage it works, and the running jokes about what Margaret is up to now provide some nice comic moments.  Also, since there is so much story to get through in the time allotted, many of the scenes are very short but the pacing doesn’t feel overly rushed.  The striking, minimalist set, centering around a large doorway, with movable furniture that is place in a track-like arrangement, lends to the pacing and allows for characters to go for strolls in the country, brisk walks around the room, or elegant dances as the plot requires, all the while moving the action forward and keeping the audience’s interest.

While this show is more than romance, the romance is definitely there and it’s lovely.  The chemistry among the actors is wonderful.  The suitors are well played by Callaghan (suitably charming and smarmy), Podulke (with a delightful nervous energy) and Rice (kind and sweet) and they work well with their romantic partners (Callaghan and Podulke with McLain, and Rice with Lemenger).  The final scene, with its dual proposals (that’s not a spoiler–it’s Austen) is a joy to watch as the couples are very well matched.  The lighting, with a the giant projected moon in the background and blue tones to suggest evening, as well as the appropriate period music, sets the scene well and bring the show to a fitting conclusion.

This is a strong cast all around, but the real standouts for me were McClain as Marianne, with all her immature impulsiveness at first and her real growth as a character as events progress, and Diane Mair as Lucy Steele, who (pun intended) steals every scene she’s in as the crass, manipulative schemer with designs on Edward.  Lemenger is also excellent as Elinor, portraying the character with less outward reserve than I’ve seen in other adaptions, but with all the maturity and strength that the role requires, and Penny Slusher as Mrs. Dashwood turns in a strong comic performance.  Also of note in this strong ensemble are V Craig Heidenreich as the friendly but bombastic Sir John Middleton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as the sisters’ self-appointed mentor and matchmaker, Mrs. Jennings.

There were a few moments where I found myself comparing this to the various filmed adaptations I’ve seen, but I think it stands up well on its own, and Jory has done an excellent job of adapting the material for the stage.  It’s a fitting Valentine to Jane Austen and Regency England, and a real treat for Austen-geeks and non-geeks alike.

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