Theater Review: PlayMakers' Sense and Sensibility Breathes Vibrant New Life into a Jane Austen Classic | Arts

Theater Review: PlayMakers' Sense and Sensibility Breathes Vibrant New Life into a Jane Austen Classic


The cast of PlayMakers' Sense and Sensibility - PHOTO BY HUTHPHOTO
  • photo by HuthPhoto
  • The cast of PlayMakers' Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility
Through Nov. 5
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill

I’ve always found celebrations linked to an artist’s death—productions last year, for instance, of Shakespeare and Cervantes—to be in questionable taste. I’ll concede, though, there’s more reason for it with Jane Austen, since her identity as the author of classic British novels including Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park was revealed only upon her death in 1817.

Austen’s been having a moment this fall with three regional productions of her works adapted for stage. The current one, Sense and Sensibility at PlayMakers Rep, is particularly a cause for celebration. Kate Hamill’s remarkable adaptation made waves throughout literary and theatrical worlds when its workshop production at Bedlam Theatre was listed among The New York Times’ top ten plays of 2014, before a successful off-Broadway remount last year sparked a Broadway run, slated for 2018. The work breathes new life into Austen’s first novel by dramatizing and occasionally mocking the economic and social tightropes women walked in Austen’s day.

Director Taibi Magar gratifies from the outset, as a gaggle of gossips whose black formal dress (and, later, masks) suggest a flock of merciless crows, pick apart the dilemma of the hapless Dashwoods after the death of Henry, the family patriarch. Circumstances are dire when sensible older sister Elinor (Shanelle Nicole Leonard) and sensitive middle sister Marianne (Emily Bosco), who embody the title’s binary states, are forced from their home along with their stoic mother (Dede Corvinus) and youngest sister, Margaret, because archaic inheritance laws mandate that the family estate must be passed to a male heir: Henry’s stepson, John (Alex Givens).

Though Austen underlines their drastically reduced circumstances, Peter Ksander’s skeletal set design minimizes them when only a few select furniture pieces appear from behind a two-story, stage-length, Regency-inspired drape. This leaves the production’s focus on the stratagems and countermoves that busybody relative—including Sarah Elizabeth Keyes’ hissable Fanny Dashwood and Ray Dooley’s dowager-in-drag, Mrs. Jennings—use to help or hinder Elinor and Marianne’s advancement in society.

In nineteenth-century British culture, women lived under fundamental lifelong contingencies. Not allowed, for the most part, to secure their own land, funds, or position, their moves were strictly monitored and judged by family and neighbors alike. They were more vulnerable to scandal than men like potential suitors John Willoughby (Geoffrey Culbertson), Edward Ferrars (Rishan Dhamija), and Col. Brandon (Jeffrey Blair Cornell).

But Hamill’s decidedly light touch, which Magar echoes here, entertainingly emphasizes the whirlwind of emotions in Marianne and Elinor’s quest for “a good match.” Meanwhile, their fates if they should fail remain untouched and not depicted: an edge this script and this production dare not look beyond.

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