When you enter the mainstage space at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, prepare to be dazzled, for this is one of the simplest, yet most elegantly beautiful sets I’ve seen.
Tones of blue and white dominate except when the skies are stormy or the moonlight varies through the night . Movable benches surround an ornate doorway, and other furniture is brought in and out as needed. Stage right is dominated by that moon, the eternal light of lovers, which waxes and wanes, and is ever-changing throughout the unfolding of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the story of two sisters on the threshold of their adult lives in early 19th century England. Tom Burch’s scenic design, complete with a crystal chandelier that is lowered when required for a ball, is a pattern of circles that enhance the themes of the story (to which designer Tom Burch calls our attention in his notes). This scheme adds to the grace of the movement director Jon Jory has choreographed for his actors. They do seem to have their backs to us rather more often than usual, but their speech is clear enough to compensate.
Per the custom of the time, sensible Elinor Dashwood (Nancy Lemenager) and her 17-year-old wildly romantic sister Marianne (Amelia McClain) will marry for a living, and the business of finding them husbands is in full swing. When we meet them, their father has recently died, and their half-brother, John Dashwood (Peter Mayer) the main heir to his father’s estate, is now in charge of them, their mother, and their younger sister, Margaret (whose character provides an amusing diversion). John’s wife, Kari Ely, is a shrewish social climber who resents the burden of her father-in-law’s second family and certainly any expense that may have to be incurred on their behalf.
The family home, Norland Park, is now occupied by the John Dashwoods.The will allotted the girls small allowances, but not enough to either live on independently or to comprise the kind of fortune that might attract a suitor. Their mother, Mrs. Henry Dashwood (Penny Slusher), is a silly little woman but good-hearted and hates having to depend on her daughter-in-law’s reluctant hospitality in what, ironically, was her own home throughout her 20-plus years of marriage. She seems to exist in a constant state of befuddlement, but we can certainly see where Marianne comes by her unrealistic notions about love. Soon enough, a cousin of hers, Sir John Middleton (V Craig Heidenreich) offers them a “cottage” (it doesn’t sound all that small, but then these are people to the manor born) in Devonshire, and they are off to the country.
Before their departure, however, a couple of potential suitors are thrown the girls’ way. The older (35!) Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) is a taciturn, seemingly dull sort of man, but he is attracted to the vivacious Marianne who is horrified by his age and demeanor. Elinor is taken with another awkward fellow, Edward Ferrars (Geoff Rice), a brother to the nasty Mrs. John Dashwood, her own sister-in-law. Edward would like to have a simple life, perhaps the Church, but he says that isn’t acceptable to his mother, due to his position as the eldest son in his family. His more flamboyant and irresponsible brother Robert (Jonathan Finnegan) is apparently not bound by the same strictures, and we will meet him later. Soon, Marianne is besotted with dashing young Willoughby (Charles Andrew Callaghan), seemingly the perfect prospect for her. They meet cute when she sprains her ankle and he carries her home. He loves to talk and joke and dance and have fun, and Marianne loves him. He also has plenty of money, and even her mother is taken with his charms.
But the course of true love never runs smooth, and there are many circles to pass through and many moonlights must pass before things get squared away. The girls sojourn to London and are taken up by the rather overwhelming Mrs. Jennings (Nicole Orth-Pallavicini), a sort of Restoration society shadchanit, who, having married off her own two daughters now accepts it as her mission to get everyone else paired up too. Elinor meets a Miss Lucy Steele (Diane Mair) who wants to be best friends and confidantes immediately. That’s fine, but the first secret she imparts regards her engagement to Edward Ferrars. Uh oh! Much is revealed about the too-cool-for-school Willoughby, and Marianne comes down with one of those Austen illnesses that women get when they are in great emotional distress and nearly dies of it. Elinor is beside herself with worry and the secrets just keep on coming.
But you mustn’t fret, dear theatergoer, because you know how things always come out in Jane Austen’s novels, and this one, her first published in 1811 under the name “A Lady,” actually set the pattern she uses to one extent or another in her other five. Her style became more sophisticated as she grew as a novelist, but the essential matters of the time in which she lived and the strictures of life in that time remained her meat and potatoes. Jory has done a lovely adaptation of the story, making it comprehensible for even those who have never read the book or seen the movie, but there are some confusing elisions. The events are all there, but sometimes they seem to occur even more precipitously than they do in the novel. So, just accept things as they happen, and try not to mind the gaps.
It’s always good to see local actors on the Rep stage, and besides Ely and Mayer, Michelle Hand has a turn as Lady Middleton, the ultra well-bred wife of bumptious Sir John and a memorable scene as the elder Mrs. Ferrars, matriarch of that clan. Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Antonio Rodriguez are servants, and the ensemble is filled out by Webster Conservatory students Ellie Kuhlke, Jacob Lacopo, Jordan Parente, and Meagan Stevenson. That extraordinary set would be nothing special without Ann G. Wrightson’s lights, and Patricia McGourty’s pastel costumes on the young ladies, jewel tones on the elder, and proper dress for the men add much to the mood. Sound design and original compositions are provided by Joe Cerqua with assistance from Rusty Wandall.
It speaks well of the Rep that it can attract a director of Jon Jory’s caliber. Among his accomplishments are co-founding the Long Wharf Theatre and serving as artistic director of the Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is best-known for establishing the Humana Festival for new plays. He is now a professor in Santa Fe. He brought some of his design people and actors with whom he has previously worked with him to St. Louis, and we are lucky to have them.
Sense and Sensibility is, as Artistic Director Steven Woolf points out, perfect for fans of Downton Abbey of which I am one. I found the play in turns amusing and soothing, funny and sad, and happily Jory doesn’t lose any of Austen’s sense of irony and wit in his treatment. The acting is uniformly fine, if a bit shrill on the part of the younger women from time to time (though I do think the annoying Miss Steele is supposed to be vocally unpleasant). Just to single out a couple of the performances I found most memorable: Lemenager is the perfect Elinor, still unmarried in her twenties but practical by nature, until the right one comes along; and Callaghan is a superior cad. The crowd on opening night demonstrated the kind of interest a play like this generates in our community, and it’s always good to see a packed house. This is not the kind of piece that is likely to send audiences out to debate the issues it raises, but it should cushion their ride home and will not disturb their good night’s sleep.
Sense and Sensibility is at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 3, 2013. You may contact www.repstl.org.
By ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT
|< Prev||Next >|