Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sense and Sensibility
Dear Reader, I mean it when I say that every moment of this show is a purealbeit adulterateddelight. Why adulterated? First of all, Hamill's play is in a certain respect a double adaptationboth of Austen's 1811 masterpiece and of Ang Lee's very popular 1995 film version of the novel, which was scripted by Emma Thompson. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, the play includes (spoiler alert) the big mushy "betrothal" scene from the movie, an event that is pointedly not portrayed in the novel. This and other omissions and departures from the novel have the effect of moving the story away from a searing social critique and profound exploration of human folly into a full-blown, love-and-marriage-plot Romance. Even that choice would not warrant special mention, except for the small problem that Austen is not a Romantic.
In fact, she is regarded by many readers and scholars as something of an anti-Romantic, while the novel is at least partly an unsparing satire of precisely the soppy, sentimental romance novels that were so popular in her era. Of course, Sense and Sensibility goes beyond parody. Austen was reacting against the cult of "sensibility" that had swept across Europe during the late years of the 18th century and the first few decades of the 19th. The "Philosophy of Sense," which took popular expression in romance novels, advanced the idea that emotions lent better insight to moral truth than close observation, cautious consideration of evidence, and rational judgment. The book is in many ways a harsh indictment of sentimentalism, false piety, and the public display of emotional delicacy, all of which could mask exploitation of the less powerful.
That said, gentle reader, you should get your tickets now, because none of these factors need detract from your enjoyment of this delightful, whirling dervish of a play. The Guthrie's Sense and Sensibility is a witty, fast-paced, endearing romp through Austen-land, with smart direction by Sarah Rasmussen and fine performances all around. Junghyun Georgia Lee's dark-wood minimalist set captures the understated elegance of High Regency interiors, and Moria Sine Clinton's flowing pastel gowns are subtle and ethereal. The production is seamless and wonderfully Guthrie-esque in the sense that it meetsand sometimes exceedsthe standards of excellence we have come to expect from the great house.
Between the novel and the movie, most gentle readers are probably familiar with the plot. But for the uninitiated, "Sense" is represented by the elder of the three Dashwood sisters, Elinorplayed with greet finesse by Jolly Abraham. Her younger sister Marianne (a fiery Alejandra Escalante) is the standard bearer for "Sensibility." As genteel young ladies of marriageable age, with education, good looks, and talent (Marianne plays a mean pianoforte), the sisters would have no trouble finding suitable partners were it not for the untimely death of their father, combined with that unfortunate rule that property and wealth are passed on through the male line only. The sudden shift from landed to poor, unlanded gentry has the unfortunate consequence of leaving the sisters dowryless, thus compromising their desirability as prospective marriage partners. The plotline follows their trials and adventures as the two pursue and are pursued by various suitors until (spoiler alert) they find trueor at least sufficienthappiness.
Elinor falls in "friendship" with Western literature's monument to reticence, Edward Ferrars (John Catron). Despite the fact that Edward's conversation rarely rises above a stammer, everyone expects a match to be sealed before the girls' wimpy half-brother John (Kris L. Nelson), who inherits the Dashwood Estate, kicks the three sisters and their mother out. However, Edward misses the cue for passion and remains silent as the girls mount their carriage to travel to a distant country cottage (supplied to them gratis by a wily Sir John Middleton, played by Robert Dorfman and his platonic companion, the robustly intrusive Mrs. Jennings, played Sally Wingert). Marianne falls madly in love with the dashing Mr. Willoughby (Torsten Johnson), who, like Edward, mysteriously refrains from proposing, instead dashing off to London. I'll stop here. Suffice to say, the plot thickens.
Rasmussen keeps the story clipping along and she makes cunning use of the two revolving circles inlaid on the stage floor, while further solidifying her reputation for fabulous ensemble work. But as Twin Cities audiences have come to see, what marks her an exceptional rather than merely competent director has to do with the way she produces ineffable, deeply theatrical moments in which the complexity of, say, a minor character's motivation or certain unspoken truths of a relationship, come suddenly, subtly to light. Such moments occur, for instance, when she slows the action to a halt as Elinor picks up an important memento she's dropped with the utmost care, or when in staging missed exchanges, she has the actors turn their heads ever so slightly so as to just barely elude one another's fields of visionand this with exquisite precision. One can see Rasmussen's touch in the tiny scene in which Wingert as Mrs. Jennings brings Elinor a glass of wine for a very ill Marianne. As Wingert hurries offstage, mumbling something about how wine would sometimes comfort her gouty husband (now deceased), she seems to morph miraculously from stock stage busybody to world-weary empath, and we realize, simultaneously with Elinor, that the woman has known suffering. Whereupon Abraham registers something like wonder at having come across a genuine act of kindness in a London scene thick with vicious gossips and pretendersone second before she downs the drink meant for her sister.
A word about Jolly Abraham. This actress's performance is so beautifully nuanced and she so completely radiates Elinor's intelligence, her strength, as well as her vulnerability, that I doubt that I will ever think of the character without recalling it. I doubt that I would want to. This is Abraham's Guthrie debut; let's hope we have the chance to see her on Twin Cities stages again very soon. She is terrific. I liked Escalante's performance for bringing out features of Marianne that are too often neglected. Certainly, Escalante captures Marianne's free-spiritedness, but she also lets us see the character's rebellious spirit and her competitive feelings toward her sister. Wingert is a scream as the breathlessly intrusive Mrs. Jennings, and her circulating banter with Sir John Middleton (Robert Dorfman) in act one is riotously funny.
Hamill expertly captures Austen's whimsy and sharp eye for the absurdity of social rituals and she is unstintingly faithful to the novel's depiction of social cruelty. Gossip may be idle among the gentles, but it is sometimes almost inhuman. In this play, it has the potential not only to break hearts but to destroy people's lives. If Hamill does not quite do justice to the seriousness of Austen's concern that the elevation of "emotional sensitivity" might foster intellectual and ethical laziness, and more broadly, to Austen's own uncompromising moralism, it's not really her fault. She faces the same problem that plagues all adaptations of Austen: the omission of the narrator whose voice provides most of the novels' philosophical depth and searing social critique. Take away the commentary and you've got, well, something that looks very much like a well-plotted, only mildly satirical, romance. And while Hamill does her best to channel some of Austen's cynicism into Elinor, she can only take it so far, if only because, well, Elinor's not omniscient.
(Another spoiler). When all's said, I had less trouble with Hamill's reproduction of Hugh Grant's proposal to Emma Thompson than with the fact that she decided to end the play with it. (In Austen, the match is "assumed" once all obstacles are removed, the wedding is casually reported, and the novel ends by affirming the sisters' enduring intimacy.) It is now only fair to confess, gentle reader, that, like everyone else in the audience the night I saw the show, I ate up the romantic stuff. I even applauded when the Bruno Mars song, "Marry You," was piped in at the end, even though the use of the song had a slightly too clever kind of wink-wink feel to it, as to suggest: "Yes, yes, we're aware that we're going full maudlinor even Austen-litebut, what the hey? Just have fun with it."
And you will. Just be sure to tell the teenager you bring to the show with you not to even think about skipping the book when it comes up in English Lit because he or she "saw the play [or the movie]." Because, while all of Austen's books are timeless, Sense and Sensibility the novel seems particularly timely at a moment when people are tempted to make crucial decisions on the basis of gut feelings rather reason, empirical evidence and, well, good sense.
Sense and Sensibility, by Kate Hamill. Performed through October 29, 2016, at Guthrie Theatre, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. To order tickets or for find further information, visit guthrietheater.org or call the box office at 612-377-2224 or toll-free at 1-877-44STAGE.
Directed by Sarah Rasmussen