Story: Mrs. Henry Dashwood has an unfortunate decision to make. Her late husband’s will has bequeathed his considerable estate to his son John, whose wife makes it clear that she isn’t happy having her husband’s stepmother and three stepsisters residing with them any longer.
This prompts Mrs. Henry Dashwood to move with her daughters to a cottage on the grounds of her cousin Sir John Middleton. She also undertakes the task of marrying off her two eldest daughters, Elinor and Marianne. Even for the British aristocracy in 19th century England, however, that’s easier said than done. Finding suitable partners for her sensible daughter Elinor and high-strung, emotional daughter Marianne proves to be challenging for the lady.
Highlights: English novelist Jane Austen, who enjoyed somewhat modest success in her lifetime, has been a prominent fixture on the shelves of literature lovers for more than 150 years. Her first published work, Sense and Sensibility, was written under the pseudonym, A Lady, in 1811. Austen herself paid for the book to be published, and all 750 first editions were sold by 1813.
Jon Jory, who has led his own remarkable career as long-time producing director at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, founder of the Humana Festival of New American Plays and artistic founding director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, has adapted several of Austen’s works to the stage. His version of Sense and Sensibility was first presented in Chicago in 2011, and I’m told it’s a quite faithful rendition of Austen’s novel. It’s smart, sophisticated and consistently charming as directed by Jory in The Rep’s new production.
Other Info: One of the primary stars of this presentation is lighting designer Ann Wrightson, who shrewdly utilizes the ever-present moon in the background, washing it with an ever-changing array of hues that accentuate the romance or comedy being played out on stage. Her design is arresting and intoxicating, subtle yet pronounced and invaluable to the overall effect of Jory’s inspiration.
The scenic design by Thomas Burch cleverly addresses the myriad locales in Austen’s work with an effectively minimalist interpretation. A molding crown that looms above the action aesthetically draws a patron’s eyes to the modest accumulation of curved benches and a stately, solitary door that emphasize the British Regency period as well as offering a conceptual ‘course’ through which the players gracefully enter and exit sundry scenes.
Patricia McGourty’s lavish costumes underscore the elegance of the period, while Joe Cerqua’s lush compositions and sound design, in conjunction with associate sound designer Rusty Wandall, evoke a time when dance was crucial to proper protocol (for more on this subject, refer to Sarah Brandt’s delightful essay in the program, which explains what was expected of folks in society, even those “afflicted with freckles”).
Jory’s pacing is smooth and his numerous scene changes, orchestrated with the invaluable assistance of stage manager Glenn Dunn and associate stage manager Shannon Sturgis, are virtually lilting in their execution.
The numerous players are very much into the spirit of the presentation, although there’s a hiccup in the capable Penny Slusher’s interpretation of Mrs. Henry Dashwood, who seems beyond vapid and simply too daffy and annoying to be taken even remotely seriously. Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as Mrs. Jennings, another dowager bent on marrying off children, seems more palatable by comparison.
Nancy Lemenager and Amelia McClain, as Elinor and Marianne, respectively, bring strong, clear and convincing portrayals to their roles. Lemenager maintains decorum and control throughout, despite her own romantic travails, as the erudite Elinor, while McClain effectively shows Marianne’s impetuous emotions in sharp contrast.
There are finely attuned contributions by the stellar supporing cast, including Geoff Rice as Elinor’s confounding love interest, Edward Ferrars, Charles Andrew Callaghan as the dashing scoundrel Willoughby, who wreaks havoc with Marianne’s heart, and Alex Podulke as the noble if brooding Colonel Brandon.
V. Craig Heidenreich is a hoot as the fun-loving Sir John Middleton, who cowers in the presence of his imperious wife Lady Middleton, played in impeccably overbearing style by Michelle Hand. Much the same relationship exists between the well-meaning John Dashwood, portrayed with lumbering flair by Peter Mayer, who is equally badgered by the officious Mrs. John Dashwood, played to the hilt by Kari Ely.
Jonathan Finnegan brings out the pomposity of Edward’s brother Robert, and Diane Mair suitably steals scenes as the under-educated but cunning Lucy Steele. Elizabeth Berkenmeier and Antonio Rodriguez are fastidious domestics, while Ellie Kuhlke, Jacob Lacopo, Jordan Parente and Meagan Stevenson fill ensemble roles.
In the hands of a savvy talent such as Jory, Ms. Austen is given her due and more in The Rep’s sprightly and satisfying Sense and Sensibility.
Play: Sense and Sensibility
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 3
Tickets: From $19.50; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.