Critic's PickThe popularity of Jane Austen continues unabated. A sparkling adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was an audience favorite a year ago for Cincinnati Shakespeare, and another Jon Jory adaptation of the 19th-century author’s stylish novels of romance and domestic intrigue, Sense & Sensibility, is likely to repeat that box-office bonanza.
This time it’s the sisters Dashwood, Elinor (Kelly Mengelkoch) and Marianne (Sara Clark), whose differing natures and tastes in men drive the events. Mengelkoch is the “sense,” the rational, reserved and reasonable older sister, always wise and pragmatic, stepping back from romantic encounters out of thoughtfulness for others. Clark plays the younger, willful Marianne, embodying the 19th-century notion of “sensibility,” one who is impetuous, opinionated and romantic. (At one moment, she blows a delicately disparaging raspberry in response to her sister’s admiring assessment of a suitor.) As their stories play out, they grow closer — Elinor’s pragmatism slowly melts as she opens her heart to romance, while Marianne’s headlong rush toward marriage is shattered by the actions of a callous cad, leaving her in a deep depression. She recovers from her “torrential folly” when an attentive, honest man she previously found utterly boring offers her a more stable relationship. (Truth to tell, Austen’s novel ends more ambiguously, but Jory’s adaptation resolves Elinor’s and Marianne’s stories with a scene not unlike a Shakespearean romance when all the confused lovers are appropriately matched.)
Sense & Sensibility provides ample opportunities for the actors to bring quirky characters to life.
They often play against even-tempered sagacity that Mengelkoch pours into Elinor; occasionally more sober roles contrast nicely with Clark’s spirited Marianne, but several characters are vividly drawn in their own right. Sherman Fracher’s meddling, matchmaking Mrs. Jennings, all giggles, schemes and bouncing curls, is the frequently misguided catalyst for the sisters’ intrigues with potential suitors. As their unsubtle mother, Regina Pugh is also a fine comic foil who bridges the gap between the dispositions of her daughters. (The Dashwoods’ youngest sister, Margaret, is never seen but often referenced as being outside in her tree house or playing in the garden.) Maggie Lou Rader is the shrewish wife of Elinor and Marianne’s beleaguered brother John (Jeremy Dubin), and Miranda McGee gives Lucy Steele just the kind of awkward country-bumpkin air that makes her an object of scorn and pity.
Brent Vimtrup’s earnest Edward Ferrars is the perfect match for Mengelkoch’s Elinor. We sense his reserve as well as his unspoken yearning from their first encounter. Ian Bond is Willoughby, the charming cad who misleads Marianne. His vibrant presence makes it easy to feel the attraction that sweeps her away, but when he spurns her for a wealthier woman, we feel as cheated as she. Longtime CSC performer Giles Davies returns as the steady, reserved Col. Brandon, an uncharacteristically understated role that he carries off with aplomb and genuine warmth. Dubin conveys brother John’s weak-willed exasperation when it comes to his domineering wife, while Jim Hopkins is Sir John Middletown, the windy but kind-hearted relative who provides the Dashwoods with a cottage to live in; Jen Joplin is his tight-lipped, starchy wife.
Jory’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility hurtles through a dizzying number of quick scenes and a constant parade of quirky characters. (Several of the cast of 15 play more than one role.) Director Drew Fracher has kept the pace appropriately swift as we journey through the twisting relationships and delicately interlaced emotions of these two appealing but contrary young women, but his production allows enough time for audiences to absorb the humor or drama of each scene without getting bogged down. Andrew Hungerford’s minimal stage design — only a tall doorway remains in place — allows for easy changes with the quick placement or removal of a bench or a chair, but his lighting design sets the mood effectively with each transition. On the rear wall an occasional silhouetted image of tree branches or lampposts is enough to indicate the locale. The period is admirably reflected in the costumes (Heidi Jo Schiemer) and especially in the women’s wigs (James Geier) that provide the curls and frills that immediately say “Jane Austen.”
I can’t say that this production of Sense & Sensibility is quite as satisfying as last season’s Pride & Prejudice, which perhaps means that I — like Marianne — am a “victim of expectations.” Nevertheless, I’m certain that audiences will line up for tickets. The Saturday evening performance I attended was completely sold out. It’s evident that the polarities of reason and romance still appeal.
SENSE & SENSIBILITY, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 18.