To the Manners Born

16. September, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #79: Sense and Sensibility, TheatreWorks, August 28.

Jennifer Le Blanc, Thomas Gorrebeeck and Katie Fabel in Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Tracy Martin.

By Sam Hurwitt

Jane Austen is far from dull. Even if you don’t give a damn whether or not the daughters of rich families that have seen better days are displaced from their palatial estates or manage to land respectable husband for themselves, Austen’s sparkling wit and marvelously drawn characters suck even the most dubious and class-conscious reader into the joys and woes of the privileged unhappy. A flurry of movie adaptations since the 1990s turned a new generation onto her work, but a perception lingers of her books as courtly romances rather than sly satire when in fact they’re both.

It’s hard to see TheatreWorks’ current production of Sense and Sensibility helping convince anyone that Austen isn’t stuffy, however. The American premiere of a 1999 theatrical adaptation by British playwrights Andy Graham and Roger Parsley is given a pleasant but somewhat static staging by TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley. Joe Ragey’s stately set shows a lovely garden courtyard with a large cameo oval displaying a variety of elegant estates. (When I saw it, I had to reassure myself that I wasn’t in for yet another Enchanted April.)

After their father’s death, the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, have to leave their family home because their brother’s wife Fanny has the run of the place and wants them gone. (Both brother and Fanny are unseen in this play, and the Dashwood sisters’ mother is left out entirely.) Before they go off to live on the charity of distant relations, Elinor strikes up a friendship bordering on romance with Fanny’s well-mannered brother Edward Ferrars. The Misses Dashwood go to stay in a cottage in the country near their “aunt” Mrs. Jennings (in the book they’re more distantly related than that), a friendly busybody with a yen for gossip and matchmaking. There the more high-spirited sister Marianne meets the similarly fun-loving gent Willoughby, not even giving any notice to the kind, older Colonel Brandon who dotes on her. And from there, or course, nothing goes even remotely according to plan.

Jennifer Le Blanc’s Elinor is pleasant but very restrained and easily flustered, and Thomas Gorrebeeck’s seldom seen Edward is even more of a well-mannered, kind-hearted cipher. “I can’t imagine you behaving in a way that was not correct, and I can’t believe you have done so,” Edward says to Elinor, and it’s more accurate even than he knows. All of that is true to the characters, but so is a sense of their inner life straining against the dictates of the propriety they hold so dear that we seldom see, so their stoicism comes off as blandness.

It’s a bit unfair to compare the play to the superb 1995 Ang Lee movie version, but the medium of film has some inherent advantages in uncovering the raw emotion beneath the unwavering mask of politesse through close-ups and the like. All of this can certainly come through in theatre as well, especially in an intimate setting but even in a sizeable space such as the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, but in Kelley’s staging we seldom get that glimpse.  As a result, with a few exceptions, it comes off a very faithful (albeit greatly simplified) adaptation, but dry and somewhat precious.

Also, curiously enough, people have a strange habit of bursting into song. It doesn’t happen often enough for the show to qualify as a musical, and at least sometimes the performers have the good grace to start singing when clustered around the pianoforte so that it at least looks like something that the characters might actually do. But sometimes people just burst into song outside of the action of the play. This assortment of tunes apparently comprises some of Austen’s own favorites from her hand-copied music manuscripts, which is an interesting side note and makes them period-appropriate if not discernably related to the story.

Katie Fabel does have a bright and lovely voice as Marianne, who does most of the singing, and captures the younger sister’s carefree lightheartedness. Mark Anderson Phillips is a stalwart, mild-mannered Colonel Brandon, and Michael Scott McLean gives early signs of Willoughby’s flighty self-interest. Lucy Littlewood is a breath of fresh air as Edward’s embarrassing little secret Lucy Steele just because her veneer of civility is so thin, with more than a hint of malice beneath her false pleasantries, and Stacy Ross brings brisk bursts of delightful humor with her wherever she goes as the gleefully meddling Mrs. Jennings.

On the whole it’s a handsome production, with pleasing period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, and the cast is solid if largely too stolid. The story is still charming and some of the wit does shine through, but on the whole the play could be much more fun if it weren’t quite so well behaved.

Sense and Sensibility
Through September 25
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA

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