Theater Review: 'Sense & Sensibility'

By: 
Ben Miles

“Sense and Sensibility” – a novel penned by Jane Austen and published in 1811 – was originally put on the market anonymously; “By A Lady,” instead of Austen’s name, appeared on the title page. It’s the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (age 19) and Marianne (age 16 1/2) coming of age. These two siblings have an older, uncharitable half-brother, John, and a younger sister, Margaret, age 13.

The tale has endured as a BBC series (2007-2008) directed by John Alexander, and before that in 1995 it was made into a much acclaimed film directed by Ang Le and starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. Now under the direction of theater veteran Casey Stangl, Jessica Swale’s 2014 stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is the opening production of South Coast Repertory’s 2018-2019 season.

In spite of elaborate and elegant stagecraft (a fungible scenic design by Francois-Pierre Couture; period-perfect costuming by Maggie Morgan; a complementary lighting design by Anne E. McMills; an evocative projection design by David Murakami, which conveys the beautifully photogenic illusion of an outdoor setting – leaves, lakes, the family estate; and original music and soundscape created by Martin Carrillo) and the modern-day multicultural casting, aided by a committed lineup of actors, which seem as natural as a rainy day in the English countryside, it’s nevertheless difficult to make Austen’s novel into a gripping drama for the stage. Ms. Stangl’s direction, as fluid and florid as it is, still keeps the attention of this costume drama more on the costume than the drama.

Austen’s complex characters – trapped in a royal culture long held captive to the mandates of men and manners – despite the best efforts of this capable cast, remain little more than symbols and stand-ins for the profound desperation so nuanced and shaded through the writing of the masterful Jane Austin.

Several of the actors convincingly embody multiple roles, including Nike Doukas as Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Palmer, and Miss Grey; Joel Gelman as Thomas and Mr. Palmer; Rachel Charny as Lucy Steele and the village gossip; Abigail Marks as Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings; and Matt Orduna as John Dashwood and John Middleton.

Preston Butler lll is suffiently gallant as would-be suitor Willoughby. Josh Odsess-Rubin effectively captures the self-effacing, easily tongue-tied Edward Ferrars. And Dileep Rao is sincere as Colonel Brandon a competitor for the affections of one of the Dashwood sisters.

But the center of the Austen conceit lies with the trio of Dashwood sisters – Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, each played with a range of emotion along with tasty dollops of humor. Hilary Ward, Rebecca Mozo, and Desiree Mee Jung as Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, respectively, each breathe life into the characters. Ward’s Elinor puts the sense into the “Sense” portion of the story’s title; she respects propriety and is thoughtful and reserved. In contrast, Mozo’s Marianne is prone to “sensibility,” being passionate, emotional, and impetuous. While young Margaret, who calls herself a naturalist, seems infatuated by the phenomenon of mother nature’s features and creatures. Interestingly, Elinor is thought by some literary scholars to be based on Jane Austen’s older sister, Cassandra Austen.

Thankfully, the SCR program guide (handed out to audience members upon entering the theatre) provides short articles that give historic context to Austen’s story. For example, with regard to music and poetry Franz Joseph Haydn’s 12 London symphonies had been completed and performed several times in London just prior to this time period, and Alexander Pope along with William Shakespeare were widely appreciated during at this historic juncture, known as the Regency Era. Reading the articles will shed light on the staged proceedings.

”Sense and Sensibility” is two-hours and forty-five minutes in length (including one fifteen-minute intermission) and continues on the Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory through Sept. 29.

Evening performances are are Tuesdays though Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.Evening performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

For reservations call (714) 708-5555. For online ticketing and further information visit www.scr.org.

SCR is located at 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 92626.

ben@beachcomber.news

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