Curtain Calls: ‘The Madness Makes Sense’

“Sense and Sensibility” is playing at Folger Shakespeare Library through Oct. 30 Courtesy photo
“Sense and Sensibility” is playing at Folger Shakespeare Library through Oct. 30
Courtesy photo

One has only to read Jane Austen’s first published novel, “Sense and Sensibility”, to wonder how in the name of all that is corseted and prim such a thing could be staged.  It is, after all, a literary bonbon made delectable by Miss Austen’s subtle observations and sideways sense of humor. And theatre can be such a direct medium. How is it possible?

Enter an adaptation by Kate Hamill with direction by Eric Tucker. Suddenly, early 19th century English society awakens in all its gossiping, eaves-dropping, snobbish and foolish romantic glory.  Making full use of energetic ensemble techniques, Tucker establishes the humor, heartbreak, and confusion that naturally arise in semi-closed societies where other people’s lives are the prime source of entertainment.

I have only one bone to pick with director Tucker and I’ll pick it now. His contention that Jane Austen would have loved Facebook and spent “endless hours tweeting her friends” completely disregards one of the few known facts about her personality – her shyness and sense of privacy. Nevertheless, upon entering, the audience is assaulted with booming rock music as the actors wander on and off stage, greeting us to no purpose. We don’t need a cacophonous racket to make us think we’re about to have fun. The Folger isn’t a casino.

Thankfully, the play mirrors Austen’s ear for nuances in personalities and tones.  While ten beautifully cast players take on a head-spinning number of roles, the story pivots around the very sensible and self-controlled Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell) and her more emotionally volatile sister Marianne (Erin Weaver). Both will fall in love, both will know the devastation of misconstrued intent and the tyrannical power of parents who control their sons with money. But for all its faithfulness to human nature, “Sense and Sensibility” is endless good times.

Employing John McDermott’s set of multiple chairs and glass doors on wheels, as well as one highly mobile entrance way, raw emotions come spinning to life. Anyone who has been broad-sided by an unexpected personal catastrophe knows the feeling of a universe unglued. This highly original and tightly choreographed staging communicates not just emotional wreckage, but joy, secrecy, and hope. Faces forever lurking and listening to “private” conversations, sometimes off-stage, sometimes from the audience, remind us of public opinion’s heavy hand. And throughout it all is a sense of vibrant playfulness.

As the well-intentioned but incurable gossip and match-maker Mrs. Jennings, Caroline Clay brings a force to the role that balances “lighter” characters such as little sister, Margaret Dashwood, (Nicole Kang) and Sir John Middleton (Michael Glenn). In one of the most entertaining feats of staging, Kathryn Tkel and Lisa Birnbaun play the husband-hungry sisters Lucy and Anne Steele while alternately (thanks to swiftly rolling chairs) play the disapproving ladies who interrogate them, Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars.

Jamie Smithson adroitly juggles the role of the noble Edward Ferrars with his own dissipated brother, Robert; and heartthrob John Willoughby, (Jacob Fishel) who favors us with a fine view of his profile, morphs readily into the selfish and easily manipulated John Dashwood.  Perhaps the least foolish and most sympathetic character, the “older” suitor Col. Brandon, (he’s nearing his late thirties!) comes movingly to life in James Nelson’s skillful portrayal.

Walks in the country?  Gallops in carriages?  No prob!  Actors whipping branches past the travelers, and other actors creating the subtle noises of birds and horses’ hooves are all just part of a quick-changing and unified experience impossible to resist. Frequent and quickly assembled dinner parties serve plenty of fresh gossip – as well as chicken legs, a point made clear by the actors’ precision miming.

And let us be thankful that designer Mariah Hale acknowledged the era with costumes that, while sometimes casual or even whimsical, nevertheless followed the clear lines and restrictions of the early regency period. (Seeing the actors walking around in white undergarments to that awful music at the opening made me fearful on this point.) And the unsung technical heroes, as always, deserve a good singing. Jesse Belsky’s lighting and James Garver’s clever and intricate sound design are irreproachable parts of the magic.

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.

Want to go?

What:  “Sense and Sensibility”

Where:  Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.

Call:  (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre

Playing through Oct. 30