The Lantern opens its twentieth anniversary season with the Philadelphia premiere of Jane Austen’s class-conscious romantic comedy of manners, in which a young idle-rich heroine’s matchmaking and meddling go awry in Regency England. Emma Woodhouse (the delightful Lauren Sowa) is attractive, privileged, and clever, snobbish, spoiled, and vain. She begins to dabble in introductions between her unmarried acquaintances (“the most wonderful game in the world!”), with the self-satisfied delusion that she alone knows what’s “for the best” and who’s right for whom. As she comes of age, Emma finds that the matrimony she attempts to mediate between others is not just about propriety, social status, and financial advantage, but that love can come as a surprise, even to her.
With a cast of ten (half playing dual roles) and a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, the production is ambitious, full, and rich, and every second is thoroughly engaging. Director Kathryn MacMillan captures all the detailed observations, upper-class spectacle, and lively characters of the novel (adapted for the stage by Michael Bloom) with satiric wit and 19th-century British decorum. The stellar ensemble obviously enjoys the personalities and quirks of their roles and delivers them with light-hearted gusto and apropos bearing. Especially amusing are Charlotte Northeast as the chattering spinster Miss Bates; Angela Smith as the pretentious Augusta Elton; Trevor William Fayle as the genteel and mercenary Mr. Elton; and the always marvelous Harry Smith as Mr. Knightley, Emma’s longtime friend who is truthful in his criticisms of her arrogant attitude and misguided intentions, but loves her in spite of her maddening flaws.
The Lantern’s artistic team creates a beautiful evocation of the Georgian era (set by Dirk Durossette; lighting by Shelley Hicklin), with its delicate decoration, high-key palette, elegant music and dance (original compositions and sound by Christopher Colucci; choreography by K.O. DelMarcelle), and enchanting fashions (wigs and make-up by Monique Gaffney; costumes by Alisa Sickora Kleckner); Messrs. Fayle and Smith in particular look like they’ve just stepped out of a period portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The show is a light and airy pleasure in every way, and a brilliant start to the Lantern’s landmark season. September 19-November 3, 2013, lanterntheater.org.