A couple of seasons ago, Jon Jory brought his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to Actor’s Theatre. It was a powerful and dynamic version of the famous story, a whirlwind of action settling into forthright narrative that kept a startling amount of the story without burdening the audience with an overlong running time. It was a model of how to adapt classic literature for the stage.
|Helen Sadler and Alex Podulke|
in ATL's "Sense & Sensibility"
Photo by Alan Simons
Now the former ATL Artistic Director has turned his formidable skills to yet another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility. He begins at a more measured pace than his Pride adaptation, but he still enters the narrative forcefully and with certain purpose, wasting no time in establishing characters and relationships. We meet the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Nancy Lemenager) and Marianne (Helen Sadler), who, after the death of their father, are cast out of the home they share with their mother and younger sister, Margaret (a character referred to, never seen on stage, and hardly missed). As they settle into a simpler life in a country cottage, various persons enter their lives, including potential suitors Edward Ferrars (Geoff Rice), Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) and Willoughby (Justin Blanchard).
This being Jane Austen, the end is never in doubt, but there is great fun to be had in the journey. Thomas Burch’s marvelously airy set design provides an ample space suggestive of both the period and the emotional dynamics of the story, while Brian J. Lilienthal lights the broad backdrop and spare but elegant furnishings in ravishing colors that seal the deal in great style. All of the design work follows function, since the space is necessary to accommodate Mr. Jory’s rapid transitions, which often have actors simply turning from one light to another to begin a new scene.
Still, as the second act unfolds, there is a period where one can feel the wheels of the narrative become ever so slightly stuck in the mud, and the quicksilver staging struggles to muddle through necessary yet burdensome exposition. The journey gets back on track in time to make the inevitable happy ending seem hard won and therefore well-deserved for both the characters on staged and the audience.
The expert cast gracefully navigates the complexities of the plot to realize the warmth and humor of the characters, with nary a false note among them, but the wonderful Helen Sadler stood out as Marianne, the younger, more impetuous sister who suffers perhaps the more deeply felt troubles in the story. Nancy Lemenager also did an excellent job making Elinor’s hidden heartbreak a palpable presence in the theatre. David Pichette was a delightfully funny Sir John Middleton, while Wendy Robie and Penny Slusher responded to Mr. Jory’s embrace of the eccentric but humorous matriarchal figures found in Austen with fine comedic performances. It was also a treat to see local favorite Colette Delaney deliver the goods as the snooty Lady Middleton.
On paper it may seem easy to dismiss Sense and Sensibility as predictable, romantic comedy, but the truth is that romantic comedy (and make no mistake, Jane Austen created the basic narrative structure that modern-day romantic comedies still follow) is always welcome when it is done this well. When this production closes with some singularly effective romantic imagery, offset with a few last comedic grace notes from Ms. Robie and Ms. Slusher, only the most cynical and hard-crusted of curmudgeons would dare to complain. The rest of us will unabashedly relish the swoon and passion on display with a deep sigh of gratification.
"Sense and Sensibility" continues through September 24 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. To get your tickets call 502.584.1205 or go to www.ActorsTheatre.org.
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