There is a prejudice that the works of Jane Austen are best enjoyed by single women of a certain age who provide shelter to a surplus of cats.
Theater at Monmouth’s fall production of “Sense and Sensibility,” written by Austen and skillfully adapted and directed by Dawn McAndrews, shatters that preconceived notion. The script is as entertaining today as the book was when it was first published in 1811. Much credit goes to McAndrews and her company’s freshly comedic approach to this classic coming-of-age tale featuring the Dashwood sisters and their romantic entanglements.
TAM’s “Sense and Sensibility” opens with the entire ensemble on stage introducing all the characters they will play — no matter how minor — and giving a bit of background to the story, its plot and setting. The actors zippily bounce from character to character to bring the audience up to speed. Since the character list is large and the troupe is small, quick changes of costume during this incipient narration bring forth the first chuckles of the evening.
The cast, speaking in fairly passable British accents, explains that the Dashwoods, consisting of Elinor, the eldest and wisest of three sisters; Marianne, who wears her heart on her sleeve; Margaret, the plucky youngest; and their mother, Mrs. Dashwood, must vacate the manor they call home after their father dies, leaving the great house to his male heir, a son by his first wife.
So the play begins with the Dashwoods simultaneously playing host to their half brother, John, and his wife, Fanny, and feeling like unwelcome and unwanted guests in their no longer home sweet home as they await word of a new place to live. While still at the manor, Elinor meets her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars, and it is clear to all (unhappily so to Fanny) that the two have found mutual respect and affection for each other. Yet no official proposal ensues, so Elinor is left to wonder about her future.
Thanks to generous distant relatives, the women move to small Barton Cottage in Devonshire to make a new home and, perhaps someday, new lives as wives, the only option for women of their class to gain an income. Soon Marianne meets the handsome and dashing Willoughby, who wins her smile and steals her heart. But will he marry her? Societal rules, inheritance issues and helpful or harmful interference by family and friends all play a part in the matchmaking.
McAndrews takes the Austen premise that a woman’s future depends upon her making an advantageous match and pushes it to the rear of the barouche while bringing forward the more universal themes of sisterly love and the importance of kindness and honor. Perfect casting emphasizes this.
Kathleen Nation imbues Mrs. Dashwood with strength, dignity and a fierce loyalty to her daughters. Casey Turner is a truly delightful Marianne, vivacious and passionate, who learns to temper her emotions with reasoning by the play’s end. Energetic Hannah Perrault infuses the young teen Margaret with enthusiasm and smiles, offering her older sisters playful jabs and not-so-helpful side comments. Meredith Casey is Elinor, the sense in “Sense and Sensibility,” the oldest child carrying the responsibility of the family on her shoulders, trying to rein in Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughby while struggling to deal with her feelings for Edward, a man who may not be able to return her affection. All four women display such a deep fondness and support for one another onstage, plus a beneficial physical resemblance among them, that it is quite easy to believe they are truly family.
Anyone who has read the book or seen Ang Lee’s 1995 film version would likely wonder why Elinor does not eventually end up with Col. Brandon. Paul Haley perfectly captures the look of the military man who has seen the ills of the world and yet still believes in grace. Haley brings intimacy to the scene when he confides in Elinor a secret not meant for polite society that demonstrates his utmost respect for her intelligence and compassion.
Kevin Aoussou brings equal fire to the stage as the brash and bold Willoughby, the handsome young man who sweeps Marianne off her feet. Thomas Campbell is a perfectly suitable Edward, going beyond giving his character an adorable stutter like Hugh Grant did to really engaging with the Dashwoods and connecting with Elinor during the brief time he is with her.
Blame Austen. She created more tension in having us worry more about how Edward will get out of his entanglement than how he will make things right by Elinor. As Robert Ferrars, Edward’s bumbling brother, Campbell had the audience laughing uproariously with his affectations. Ellen Magee nails the posh British accent when playing the smarmy Fanny, who convinces her husband not to offer any financial support to his sisters. She’s equally enjoyable as the vile Lucy but to say more would spoil the story.
Tessa Martin brings the wit, playing the affable Mrs. Jennings, a woman who lives to gossip. Hannah Perrault also does superb double duty as the empty-headed Charlotte Palmer, pregnant daughter to Mrs. Jennings, and gets the laughs for her signature guffaw.
McAndrews uses her actors to deliver wit in their lines, sarcasm in their wry smiles, and physical humor in their comportment. One can only assume Austen would hold Dawn McAndrews in high esteem for her stage interpretation of “Sense and Sensibility.”
Audience members should be more than “perfectly pleased” with this performance. “Sense and Sensibility” runs at the Theater at Monmouth until Sept. 22.