There might be a satisfying production to be had based on Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility but I haven’t seen it yet.
The script itself is problematic. In the story, when Henry Dashwood dies, the law says his estate, including his palatial country home Norland Park, must go to John, his son by his first marriage. That means his second wife and their three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, must vacate the premises and live on a limited stipend in a cottage.
Sense and Sensibility, which Austen wrote in 1811, is about the financial vulnerability of women, for whom well-being depends upon negotiating a good — meaning a financially secure — marriage. In this setting, Elinor embodies sense (clear-headedness) and Marianne sensibility (emotionality).
The novel recognizes both the serious impact and comic absurdity of the period’s still-relevant gender norms. The novel’s comedy is restrained. For instance, when John’s awful wife Fanny is convincing him to give his half-sisters and their mother nothing more than the bare minimum, she says, “People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid to them.”
Hamill’s adaptation retains that line, but not the style in which it was originally couched. The play is broad — sometimes almost slapstick, condescending to both its characters and its audience.
The crushing social system of the early nineteenth century is reduced to a repetitive chorus of mincing, gossiping gentry. And, because Hamill applies a modern sensibility to the characters rather than allowing them to live as full human beings in their period, they look foolish. By today’s standards, Elinor, who is smitten with the handsome bachelor Edward Ferrars but can’t bring herself to acknowledge it, looks uptight. More damagingly, the emotive Marianne becomes a clown.
Stylistically, this is where things get tricky because, as played in this production by Amanda Sum, Marianne the clown is the most watchable character in the show: she’s pure innocence, constantly surprising and often comic in her emotional nakedness. But, under Rachel Peake’s direction, there are two styles of performance in this mounting — caricature (Marianne and all the aristocrats) and naturalism (Elinor, and their mother Mrs. Dashwood). The styles clash.
And, because Hamill’s adaptation starts off with a such a cartoonish first act, the seriousness of the plot points in Act 2 —unwanted pregnancy, abandonment, heartbreak —doesn’t feel earned. Because of the superficiality of the set-up, I didn’t really care about anything all night. I didn’t feel like anything real was at stake. And, other than issues of style, this production gave me sweet nothing to think about.
That said, there are performance successes. Besides Sum’s Marianne, there’s Janet Gigliotti’s grounded Mrs. Dashwood, Nyiri Karakas’s restrained Elinor, and Abraham Asto’s achingly understated Captain Brandon.
On many levels, the show looks great. Set designer Shizuka Kai gives us a back wall made of embroidery hoops. Jacqueline Firkins supplies handsome period clothing — all white for the main characters and white with black handwriting on them for the gossips.
Some things work, but the whole doesn’t.
I wish Hamill had trusted her audience enough not to talk down to us.
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Kate Hamill, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Rachel Peake. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, March 9. Running until April 2. Tickets
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