With a cast of nineteen playing twenty-eight roles, a two-hour and 40-minute running time, a towering architectural set, and a lavish array of period-style costumes, the regional premiere of Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s stage adaptation of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY at People’s Light & Theatre Company—a follow-up to their 2014 hit PRIDE AND PREJUDICE–displays all the epic grandeur inherent in Jane Austen’s debut novel. And under the impeccable direction of Hanreddy, the incisive and witty production is not just imposing in scale, it’s world-class in every detail.
Published in 1811, Austin’s romantic comedy of manners, set in England in the 1790s, contrasts the temperaments of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who move from a privileged life at their family’s estate in Sussex to a more modest existence in a small cottage on the Devonshire grounds of a distant cousin, after their father’s death leaves them and their mother penniless. While nineteen-year-old Elinor behaves with rational thought and restrained emotion, Marianne, just turning seventeen, brims with candid expression and unbridled passion, as they navigate the class-conscious socio-economic mores of their time and attract suitors with secrets that will impact their future.
Referencing the leading philosophical and aesthetic movements of her era, Austen’s young women personify the divergent trends of Neoclassicism (representing the considered logic or “sense” of the classical tradition) and Romanticism (giving way to feelings or “sensibility”–thinking with the heart and not with the mind) that co-existed from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. But as her characters grow through experience, they recognize the dominant traits that define them, begin to see both the good and the flaws in themselves and in others, and come to understand the need for an emotional balance between the two extremes of the title.
In the hands of the masterful Hanreddy and his superb cast—integrating long-time People’s Light favorites with accomplished newcomers to the company–the characters function as the satirical archetypes and the nuanced three-dimensional human beings that Austen so perceptively synthesizes, telling their story with equal amounts of humor and insight. The two female leads could not have been more perfectly cast, as they capture the distinctive personalities and character development of the teenage Dashwood sisters on the cusp of adulthood. Soft-spoken, subtle, and diplomatic in her speech, refined, controlled, and mature in her demeanor, and appropriately understated in her comical reactions, Cassandra Bissell makes a stunning Elinor, looking as if she just stepped out of a period painting, with her ivory skin, classic profile, and elegant bearing. Clair Inie-Richards’ Marianne is adorably spirited and exasperatingly melodramatic, as everything she thinks explodes from her mouth and everything she feels overtakes her body; she is a force of youthful energy and the consummate picture of laughably histrionic abandon.
Sam Ashdown as the dashing Byronic scoundrel John Willoughby, Grant Goodman as the steadfast and honorable Colonel Brandon, and Neil Brookshire as the diametrically opposed brothers Edward and Robert Ferrars turn in engaging performances as the men of interest. The supporting cast members—several playing dual or multiple roles–deliver just the right look (authentic period-style costumes by Marla Jurglanis; wig and hair design by J. Jared Janas) and tone to their characters, with spot-on British accents that define their backgrounds, status, and pretentions, from the unyielding snobbery of the elderly Mrs. Ferrars (Susan McKey), to the self-centered avarice of John and Fanny Dashwood (Kevin Bergen and Teri Lamm), to the dying Henry Dashwood (Joe Guzman), sincere in his concern over the financial security of his wife and daughters after his passing. Mark Lazar and Marcia Saunders are terrific as Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings, the risibly loud, meddling, and unsophisticated, but eminently kind, generous, and likeable country cousins who open up their homes to Elinor and Marianne. Rounding out the stellar cast are Olivia Mell and Karen Peakes as the social-climbing sisters Lucy and Anne Steele.
Hanreddy and his ensemble astonish with their seamless split-second transitions, shifting from one scene to the next with the turn of a head, a step, or a telling word to indicate the passage of time, without ever missing a beat. Exquisitely beautiful lighting (by Dennis Parichy), brief interludes of music (by composer Paul James Prendergast), moving wall panels (set by Linda Buchanan), and portable furnishings cleverly rearranged by the actors portraying the servants (Jennifer Summerfield, Doug Cashell, Christopher David Roché, Mark Knight, Katie Stahl, and Lesley Berkowitz) are also employed to signal Hanreddy’s fluid changes of scenes and locales. There is not a moment wasted in this precisely paced and thoroughly entertaining production.
[Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] February 10-March 20, 2016; peopleslight.org.