American Players Theater’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a classic Austen with solid performances – Isthmus
Whether American Players TheaterThe 2015 production of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice left you craving more stories of English moors, society balls, bonnets and unspoken aspirations, or perhaps the recent hit TV series Bridgerton has you in a romantic Regency-era state of mind, good news! APT’s long-awaited Austen offering Sense and sensitivity opened June 25 and runs on the hill until October 9. Adapted by Jessica Swale and directed by Marti Lyons, this classic costume drama relies more on comedy than passion — freely felt or reasonably restrained. But there are strong performances throughout, which the characters lead with heart or head as they move through the world.
Sense and sensitivity is the story of a widow and her three daughters who have been essentially disinherited after the death of the family patriarch. Dashwood women must depend on the kindness of distant relatives and the hope of marrying wealthy husbands to survive in early 19th century England. And beyond the financial incentive for marriage, of course, the eldest daughter – practical, reserved and appropriate Elinor (Laura Rook) and the younger and more impetuous Marianne (Samantha Newcomb) – want to marry for love. But to find suitable suitors, they must navigate the mores of fashionable society, avoid being slandered by gossip, and accept that as young women without a dowry or an opportunity to earn a living, their destinies lie between the hands of others.
As she did in Pride and Prejudice, Rook easily takes on the role of the reserved, pensive sister who worries about the family’s meager budget, makes the decision to let most of the household staff go, and tries to guide and comfort her younger siblings as they adapt to a much simpler life in a country house, without their father. Wrapping her pashmina tightly around her shoulders as she gazes longingly at the ocean, or furrowing her brow as she continues to make the most of their new life, it’s easy to see Rook modulating her feelings so that they do not overwhelm his ways. A confidant of her younger sister, she constantly berates Marianne for her outbursts of emotion, her honest and open hostility towards her sarcastic sister-in-law Fanny (a delightfully disapproving Tracy Michelle Arnold), and her reckless pursuit of the charming villain Willoughby ( Ty Fanning). For her part, Samantha Newcomb fills Marianne with enthusiasm for dramatic poetry, an intoxication for moving music and a vertigo for grand romantic gestures. Far from hiding her polite feelings, she wears her overflowing heart on her sleeve and her disappointments in storm clouds that settle in sharp stares, clenched fists and determined strides. Rook and Newcomb are extremely well matched as women on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
Under the anguish of men and money, the Dashwood clan has family love to spare. Nancy Rodriguez is the calm voice of experience as matriarch Mrs. Dashwood, lavishing sweet words of encouragement to her three daughters, though she works through her own grief. Even precocious young Margaret (played by scene-stealer Isabel Bushue) can tell when her much older siblings need a hug, though most of her attention seems to be focused on bugs, fish and the feathers she collects and studies as a budding naturalist.
Bushue’s interjections and excellent comedic timing punctuate many scenes, along with one-liners and sight gags performed by most of the minor characters. But Sarah Day and Brian Mani top them all as rowdy country relations with an unstoppable sense of mischief — especially when it comes to matchmaking. Waddling around the stage like a goose in search of gossip, Day’s Mrs. Jennings isn’t satisfied until she has annoyed, prodded and squeezed out the latest romantic intrigue from her guests. Sir John de Mani also revels in the good humor of young people between hunting, fishing and playing cards and croquet.
Sadly, all of the gags overwhelm much of what Austen fans cherish about the romance that’s fundamental to the book — the almost unbearable tension between would-be lovers who struggle to express the depth of their admiration. As the stiff and clumsy Edward Ferrars, Jamal James gives Elinor little reason to remember his visits, let alone yearn for him. And instead of the steadfast soldier, biding his time while harboring strong feelings for Marianne, Marcus Truschinski’s Colonel Brandon positions himself as an equally on the run idiot who could never compete with the impulsive and extravagant Willoughby. The eventual matches are meant to take place despite adversity, but the double wedding that ends the show feels undeserved, if not illogical.
The play’s structure and pacing are also problematic in Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s text. It’s inadvisable, if not impossible, to cram all of a novel’s characters and conversations into a screenplay, but it looks like Swale is trying. As a result, many short scenes are mixed in, some wordless scenes are used as transitions, and any passage of time is repeatedly omitted to keep the game moving. And while these skipped cuts are fitting for a movie, they are shocking to theater audiences. The end result feels both rushed and repetitive. The set, by Yu Shibagaki, is composed of a long ornate plant wall interrupted by a single lavender door. It doesn’t do much to recall the period or provide an interesting, malleable background for a dozen distinct settings. The costume design, by Rachel Anne Healy, is also scrappy. The color and fabric choices don’t tell a cohesive story and the prom scene, where the most elegant outfit should be displayed, looked cobbled together.
Strong performances from the protagonists, as well as those playing minor characters, ensure a fun evening. But Austen fans might want to revisit the story in another medium if they’re looking for emotional nuance.