Jane Austen gets the same rap as William Shakespeare does: Audiences fear her incomprehensible vocabulary (discommoded?) and lengthy complicated plots. So that’s why it is immensely gratifying to experience Jon Jory’s well-done, savvy adaptation of Austen’s classic 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility,” at the Wheaton Playhouse. It is both comprehensible and delightfully streamlined. Just do keep in mind in Austen’s title, “sensibility” meant a tendency to be overly romantic and emotional and influenced by the input of one’s senses and you hold the key.
Director Randall W. Knott has cast a superb ensemble of 13 who fulfill the obligation to entertain and engage. Impressively, thIs cast also is able to maintain both crystal diction and consistent English accents as the story of the recently impoverished Dashwood sisters unfolds from Devon to London.
Elizabeth Thompson as Elinor (Sense) is every bit the prim, proper, graceful and beautiful older sister that Austen envisioned. She carries the show. Mary McCormack (Sensibility) as the l9-year-old Marianne is a perfect balance to Thompson. She is petulant, feisty, immature and charmingly incandescent. She probably also delivers the best lines (“I’ll never see a man I can really love. I require so much”). Meg McGarry as their widowed mother, Mrs. Henry Dashwood, plays the kind, lovingly indulgent, but essentially clueless matriarch to a T. Her nuances are finely honed. Aaron Hoge is the perfectly cast Col. Bandon; Hoge resembles the late actor Alan Rickman (with Liam Neeson eyes) but strides the stage as the unwavering, stalwart, very much in love suitor to the impetuous Marianne. Hoge is charismatic.
There’s also a very strong supporting ensemble – all ideally capable. Sarah Atkinson is a mean-spirited, commanding Fanny Dashwood; Jake Seelye is her weak, long-suffering husband; Lynda Wellhousen is a comically perky Lucy; Eric Traphagen is the very attractive, too happy, cad Willoughby. Jean Austin plays vague Lady Middleton and strict Mrs. Ferrara; Stan Austin is a striking Sir John Middleton and a spot-on Scottish Dr. Lowry. And Jake Murphy’s Robert Ferrara is a delightfully annoying buffoon while his gardener and servant portrayals are believable contrasts.
But, in every show, there are definite scene-stealers. Annie Walker-Bright’s Mrs. Jennings is an amiable, manipulating tour de force. Her carriage, voice and expressions definitely are audience-pleasing. The subtle Alex Small is Edward, Elinor’s love interest. He’s ramrod tall, expressive and handsomely elegant in his portrayal of the shy suitor.
Yet I cannot decide if the minimalist set designed by Lisa Wallace is pure genius or a facile contrivance. There really isn’t a set; the locations are suggested by addition or elimination of set pieces carried on and off by the actors – a solitary chair, a glorious dining table, a settee. But it works extremely well with Jim Van de Velde’s lighting and director Knott’s scenario-blocking. What does not work is the lighting of the blank back wall. The hues only serve to illuminate the cracks, outlets and its less-than-pristine appearance. It seems an opportunity was missed – why not a projection or silhouette on the back wall? Charmaine Jones’ costumes are lovely, visually appealing and Regency England appropriate, although it can be somewhat distracting that the cast is in the exact same outfit from beginning to end regardless of the changes of time and setting (although there are the addition of costume pieces, it’s the same dress and jewelry underneath, from the dance to the sick bed). Rob Reinalda’s sound designs compliment all the technical aspects – birds, harpsichords, rain, and even horse’s hooves.
“Sense and Sensibility” does run more than two-and-a-half hours, but it flows and the pacing is well-timed. It is an engaging theatrical presentation that should not be missed.
• Regina Belt-Daniels is an actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.