In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are suddenly plunged into calamity when their father dies and leaves all his money and holdings to the eldest son of his first marriage. Their half-brother is supposed to take care of them, but doesn’t.
This being 18th Century England, not only do they have no financial support, they now have no home. About their only respectable way out of financial trouble is to marry. The sisters approach this differently: Elinor is the sensible one, while Marianne is emotional and impulsive. Complications ensue for each.
Playwright Kate Hamill has adapted the story for the stage with the result being 46 fast-moving scenes that tell the story of the Dashwood sisters’ search for love and security. Adrianna Baer, who directs the Alley Theatre production, says it seemed a perfect fit for her when Alley Artistic Director Rob Melrose approached her with the script in 2019.
“I tend to be very interested in plays that are adaptations or based in classical texts but with a twist. Either they’re a new adaptation as this one is or there’s something unique about the style of the production,” she says.
The result is a play that both very physical and very funny, she says, adding this is a welcome departure from many adaptations that well, get a bit weighed down by their source material. “This production moves very quickly so unlike what you might expect from a very traditionally stylized period Jane Austen adaptation, this is very funny, very fast and very light on its feet.
“This adaptation does a great job of getting to the heart of Jane Austen’s text in terms of really focusing on Elinor and Marianne, the two sisters and their journeys both individually and together,” she says.
“The playwright Kate Hamill, she’s done something very, very smart, which is she’s added a chorus, if you will, of what’s called in this production ‘The Gossips’. And The Gossips represent basically all of the external society. So they do some fun story telling both to remind us of the social constraints these characters are under but also to kind of move the plot forward.”
The 11-member cast takes on 35 roles in the court of the two-act play that last two and-a-half hours including intermission. Actors include Company members Elizabeth Bunch as Elinor, Melissa Pritchett as Marianne, Chris Hutchison at Colonel Brandon, Christopher Salazar as Edward Ferrars, Dylan Godwin as John Willoughby, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, David Rainey as Sir John Middleton and Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele. Also, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Christine Friale as Mrs. Dashwood and Laura Kaldis as Margaret Dashwood.
Jane Austen’s work has been the subject of many adaptation on stage and screen in recent years. The increased popularity for these classic works can be attributed to Austen’s ability to write fully fleshed out characters, Baer says.
“Her stories are very character-driven,” she says. “”Even the smaller characters or the supporting characters are really fun and have full lives. So from a theatrical perspective it makes it very easy to build characters which of course is really what theater is all about: putting relationships on stage.”
Austen herself was pretty revolutionary, Baer says. “Sense and Sensibility is really about economics at the end of the day. Each of her novels has a bit of a social, political message She was a feminist. She really pushed through her novel for people to see the injustice of different class levels in society or gender. or the fact that women could not inherit money. so I do think for a contemporary audience there are a lot of feminist or forward thinking threads through her novels that make it interesting for now.”
Good news for those of you who haven’t ever read the novel or it has been so long that you’ve forgotten what it’s about: according to Baer you don’t need to be an authority on Austen in general or this book in particular to appreciate and enjoy this play.
Baer, who is based on the West Coast in Portland now, says her interest in theater began as an actor. In high school she began realizing that she was “reading plays from the perspective of the audience instead of the perspective of the character I was most likely to play.” At that point, she shifted to directing.
“The trap, I think, of adaptations of classical texts, especially ones that are known by so many people, is to think of them as kind of a precious tome of work — that it’s sort of staid and boring and regal and proper and all of that,” Baer says. “When in reality these are just people being people in the world.
“So the primary focus right at the beginning with the actors was that these characters really speak at the rate of thought. Just because they’re trapped in a society that says you can’t be in a room alone with this person over here, that doesn’t mean that they’re cardboard cutouts. So we’ve really worked to give full dimensionality to each character, even the ones who are there just for the comedy. We want to make sure they have full lives as well.
“So I think what the audience can expect to see is something that is very vibrant, very very full of life,” she says. “I think that people will find the style and the design of this production to be surprising and very compelling. You’re not going to see columns and stone and stately furniture. I think the audience will find it very delightful”.
Performances are scheduled for March 4-27 (previews and then opening night March 9) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Masks and proof or vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests are required. For more information, visit alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $28-$91.