Not All a Jane Austen Adaptation Can Be
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
As clever as Jane Austen’s work can be, its depth is more or less limited to one subject: the hearts of women beating within and against the horribly sexist corset of 18th-century English society. That said, she wrote the shit out of that subject, embedding it within engaging and romantic plots sprinkled with generous dollops of drollery.
Not surprisingly, her half-dozen novels have provided source material for so many adaptations that when you come across a new take, it’s nigh on impossible not to compare it with one you’ve seen before. But I’m going to try my best to resist.
Besides, maybe this is all new to you—in which case, a spot of plot is in order: The Dashwood women have just lost their patriarch, whose sole male heir decides to kick them out of their lifelong home. That’s 18th-century patriarchy for ya. With few rights and little money, the women are lucky that a kindly distant relative provides them with a modest country cottage. But the move proves pivotal to their future in ways they cannot foresee, as the two elder daughters — Elinor (Hilary Ward) and Marianne (Rebecca Mozo), the binary star of the Sense and Sensibility solar system — meet men who will change their lives for better or worse.
Ultimately better, because Jane Austen doesn’t do tragedy. In fact, Austen is quite predictable once you have a sense of what she’s up to. This is romantic comedy in the classical sense, and you get what you pay for.
South Coast Repertory’s staging is completely in keeping with that predictability. There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise you. Rather than reach for something new, in the hands of director Casey Stangl, Jessica Swale’s adaptation grasps for the tried and true, giving us the same straightforward rendering of Austen that’s made for a number of fine films and PBS miniseries.
That works well enough throughout Act One, where not only does the plot move along trippingly, but Stangl and company do an excellent job mining the humor out of the era’s stiltedness and ceremony. The highlight is the introduction of Willoughby (Preston Butler III), Marianne’s rakish young suitor. Period manners and melodramatic conventions are amped up to absurd levels, making for true hilarity.
Unfortunately, the play never again hits such heights. With little to laugh at in Act Two and a change of pace that becomes a panicky hurry by the last half-hour, audiences are likely to come away feeling not quite satisfied.
Especially if they’ve seen Ang Lee’s film version. Yes, I know I said I’d try not to compare this Sense and Sensibility with any other, but there’s simply no way not to, as South Coast Repertory is putting on a play that seems to want to be a film, including an original score (by Martín Carrillo, which works well enough, save for one motif that is awfully reminiscent of the As the World Turns theme) and scenes cut together in a fairly cinematic fashion. (You might say, then, that the end of Act Two is poorly edited.)
The comparison—unfair as it may be—may shed some light on why Swale’s adaptation feels a little wanting. To her credit, she has made her own choices on what to include and what to omit from Austen’s highly detailed plot and voluminous dialogue, but some of those choices are questionable. A prime example comes near the end of the play. In the novel, as Marianne reflects on her relations with and feelings for Willoughby, she laments that her conduct has not been like Elinor’s, a signal of the sense she has gained from her experience. Swale has inexplicably left this out, excising an important part of Marianne’s character arc in the process.
The acting is solid, if not inspired. Willoughby’s entrance scene is so good that it’s clear the cast is capable of more dynamic work, but Stangl keeps them a bit too reined in for most of the show. There are a few big emotional moments—for example, Ward does fine work with Elinor’s catharsis near play’s end—but this is not a production where the actors leave it all on the field.
All South Coast Repertory’s productions are sleek, and this one is no exception. The mise en scène here is what you expect from a professional theatre company such as theirs—although, again, there’s nothing much to inspire. Anne E. McMills does some nice lighting work, particularly with a bit of morning sunlight angling indoors. Can’t say I’ve ever quite seen that onstage.
Ultimately, this Sense and Sensibility doesn’t quite deliver on the promise that its source material provides. Would I feel differently had I never seen Lee’s film? Perhaps, although I doubt the verdict would have been drastically different. But I have seen it. That’s the risk you take when you choose to produce yet another adaptation of one of the most adapted—well adapted—authors of the last quarter-century.
Sense and Sensibility at South Coast Repertory – Segerstrom Stage:
Times: Sun/Tues-Thurs 7:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 8 p.m. and Sat-Sun 2:30 p.m.
The show runs through Sept. 29
Details: (714)708-5555, SCR.ORG
Venue: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr , Costa Mesa