Utah Shakespeare Festival premieres a satisfying ‘Sense and Sensibility’
By Barbara M. Bannon
Special to The TribuneFirst published Jul 09 2014 01:01AM
Cedar City • Jane Austen has become extraordinarily popular in recent years, inspiring films, PBS series and plays. Four years ago, the Utah Shakespeare Festival staged a successful production of Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice." This summer, the festival is presenting the world premiere of Hanreddy and Sullivan’s "Sense and Sensibility," an Austen reprise that USF commissioned. This charming production honors the complexity of Austen’s story and characters but makes it theatrically compelling.
Why are contemporary audiences so fond of Austen?
Perhaps it’s because her portraits of family and romantic relationships and her pithy dissection of social pressures are as telling today as they were in Austen’s 19th-century England. The course of true love never runs smooth in Austen’s world, partly because of class and economic obstacles the characters can’t control.
When the dying father of Elinor (Cassandra Bissell) and Marianne (Eva Balistrieri) Dashwood leaves his fortune to their older brother, the sisters are thrown into economic circumstances that jeopardize their marriage choices. Their suitors — Edward Ferrars (Quinn Mattfeld) and John Willoughby (Sam Ashdown) — face similar economic challenges, and the polar-opposite choices they make clearly differentiate their characters.
True to the play’s title, Elinor and Marianne react to their situation in different ways, and Bissell and Balistrieri, who are onstage the entire performance, capture the nuances of the characters. Marianne is emotional and romantic; she makes snap judgments that are clever but often inaccurate. Elinor says her sister "is completely divorced from the realities of life." Elinor deals with these realities very practically; she has deep feelings, but she keeps them hidden. Her levelheadedness makes her everyone’s confidante, and she often learns more than she wants to know. Both sisters undergo changes that help them move closer to each other as the play progresses.
Elinor shares an ironic sense of humor with Edward. Mattfeld’s comic timing embroiders Edward’s stammering pauses and droll observations into an unassuming, refreshingly natural characterization. Like Marianne, Willoughby lives for the moment. Sullivan describes him as "fatally charming," and Ashdown embodies his dashing self-involvement, which has devastating consequences for himself and others.
Austen embeds these four in a world of colorful characters, brought vividly to life by finely crafted performances: Maryann Towne as the sisters’ long-suffering mother; Grant Goodman as the quiet, reliable Col. Brandon; Kipp Moorman as the sisters’ snobby brother and Nell Geisslinger as his waspish wife; Kathleen Brady as the garrulous, but warmhearted, Mrs. Jennings, and Sarah Greenman and Bri Sudia as her dithery, but well-meaning, daughters; Sara J. Griffin and Kaitlin Margaret Mills as the chattering, social-climbing Steele sisters; and Larry Bull as the generous Sir John.
Co-author Hanreddy’s direction is stylish and fluid. One scene cinematically blends into the next; stagehands dressed like servants change sets while the action continues. Characters on benches downstage take "carriage rides" while other characters back up and wave.
Hugh Landwehr’s set features screens that move seamlessly in and out and look like English landscape paintings. Split scenes, defined by Michael Chybowski’s flexible lighting, provide continuity and counterpoint. Holly Payne’s elegant costumes clarify class and character; Elinor and Marianne’s simple pastel dresses contrast with the sophisticated outfits of those more affluent.
Austen fans should relish this production. The second act is a little too long, but this adaptation captures the charm of Austen’s world and embeds us in its richness.