Sense and Sensibility
Written by Jane Austen; Adapted by Mark Healy
Amid a changing landscape, Austen classic still charms and delights
|Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents|
|Sense and Sensibility|
Review by Harry Cherkinian
It’s been over 200 years since Jane Austen first published “Sense and Sensibility” and even then she used the alias, “A Lady” for this and other works. Why? Women had very few rights back then. The best they could hope for was to marry well, since all property passed to the male heir, ensuring that inheritances remained within family lines, generation to generation.
While much has changed for women since then, part of this story’s inherent charms (and challenges) is the plight of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, and the internal and external conflict surrounding their journey involving romance, love and the inevitable heartbreak. They and their mother are forced to leave their beloved home after their father dies, which – according to laws regarding inheritance – passes to the male in the family, in this case, their spineless brother John and his scheming wife, Fanny.
While Austen has created a story rife with conflicts at various levels—familial and societal, among others—this is a true battle between the rational and irrational, logic and illogic, the head versus the heart. Austen has created a wonderful set of characters representing the two sides in the two sisters: Elinor, the thoughtful, level headed one filled with “sense” who considers society’s response to a decision like a chess game in progress juxtaposed against Marianne’s “sensibility,” governed by emotion, impulsive with her feelings outwardly, and certainly not bothered by social conventions. Likewise, the two sisters fall for men who embody similar qualities to their own (or so we are led to believe). Marianne is drawn to Fanny’s older brother, Edward, proper to an extreme given his reticence in showing his true feelings for Elinor. Marianne, of course, falls for the dashing energetic and terribly handsome Willoughby, who wears impetuousness like a heart on his well-tailored suit coat sleeve.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater does well by Austen this time around, having staged with great success her Pride and Prejudice four seasons back. This time, however, the adaptation by Mark Healy trades off the wide expanse of literary panorama of Austen’s late 18th Century realm for a more intimate portrait, resulting in the double-casting of actors with mixed results, along with the paring of related storylines and other sundry characters.
This is “Austen Abridged.” The actors are well cast in their parts, multiple or otherwise. However, it’s a challenge for the audience within the pared down storyline to separate that spineless brother John, well played by John-Patrick Driscoll, from the the stoic Colonel Brandon, despite the obvious costume and hair changes. The multi-faceted Meaghan Sullivan delights as the Machiavellian Fanny, but she also carries the roles of Lady Middleton and the lightheaded Lucy. As talented an actress as Sullivan is, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see the same actress in all three roles, despite the use of wigs and other assorted accessories. And Laura Gordon is easy to spot as the mother in mourning, Mrs. Dashwood, and then the flamboyant Mrs. Fleming.
That said, there is much to enjoy in this show, especially Scott Bradley’s use of split sets to convey action in different locales (no, one side of the stage isn’t “sense” and the other, well, you know what). His pastoral setting of undergrowth and overhang is a perfect, symbolic backdrop to Marianne’s unbridled sense of longing for freedom.
And those actors that get to play just one role do just as well as their multiple role colleagues. As the Dashwood sisters, Kate Hurster (Elinor) and Victoria Mack (Marianne) work well together and separately, instantly creating a tender sibling bond from when they first appear on stage until the end. And individually they excel as well, be it with their respective “loves” to the challenges of London high society. As their individual suitors, Nick Gabriel brings much humor to his stiff countenance as Edward, Lucy’s suitor. And as Marianne’s intended, Willoughby, Ben Jacoby is as dashing and charismatic as they come, yet manages to make the good looking playboy three dimensional as we watch his transformation by play’s end.
Director Art Manke has kept this production on course, making transitions smooth and capitalizing on the adaptation’s intimacy while still maintaining a sense of the outside world and ever-judging society peering in for a closer look.
When it came to society’s rules versus the untamed heart, Austen let her readers decide. And with this production, The Milwaukee Rep has honored Austen’s request to let us choose, be it the head or the heart—or both. Whatever the choices, the journey in this Sense and Sensibility is well worth the outcome.
Sense and Sensibility continues through January 13th the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater located in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex, 108 E. Wells (map). Tickets are $10-$65, and are available by phone (414-224-9490) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MilwaukeeRep.com. (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Jonathan Gillard Daly* (Henry, Carey, Sir John, Dr. Grogan); John-Patrick Driscoll* (John Dashwood, Colonel Brandon); Nick Gabriel* (Edward Ferrars, Robert Ferrars); Laura Gordon* (Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Jesnnings); Kate Hurster* (Elinor Dashwood); Ben Jacoby* (Willoughby); Victoria Mack* (Marianne Dashwood); Meaghan Sullivan* (Fanny, Lady Middleton, Lucy); Jonathan Altman, Emily Berman, Anne Cline, Brandon Herr, Jess Prichard, J.R. Yancher (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Art Manke (director); Mark Healy (adaptor); Scott Bradley (set); Angela Balogh Calin (costumes); Thomas C. Hase (lighting); Steven Cahill (sound design); Jill Walmsley Zager (dialect coach); Michael Brosilow (photos)
* denotes Actors Equity members