The Rep stages Jane Austen's classic; eloquence and humor yes, passion no.
Shame on me, I know. I have never read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Wuthering Heights was my required English lady-author-classic in high school. I’ve filled my Austen quota by watching Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (“the Keira Knightley version”) approximately a million times.
But it didn’t affect me. The characters failed to wrench my heart, despite all the opportunity to feel empathy toward Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Sense and Sensibility is a nice play. No more, no less.
I’m sure you know the story: Mr. Dashwood dies, leaving his only son John (John-Patrick Driscoll) vague instructions to take care of his mother and two sisters. Enter John’s wife, Fanny Ferrars (Meaghan Sullivan), who convinces her husband that his sisters and mother will be fine with nothing.
Mrs. Dashwood (Laura Gordon), Elinor (Kate Hurster) and Marianne (Victoria Mack) fortunately find a place to stay with Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton (Jonathan Gillard Daly), at Barton Park. They live in the cottage house, a downgrade from their home in Norland.
And here is where the love story begins, as young Marianne injures her ankle while dancing in the rain. (It actually rains on the set! Neat!) Handsome Willoughby (Ben Jacoby) just happens to be walking by in time for a rescue. The two begin a quick courtship. Marianne shows her youth and naiveté as she describes her vision of marriage to her sister. She wishes to have in common with her match every single taste and for love to prevail above all.
We also know that though she won’t admit it, Elinor is smitten with Edward Ferrars (Nick Gabriel), Fanny’s older brother. He is a safe and slightly dull bet. But where Marianne relies on her sensibility, Elinor prefers sense.
At the end of Act I, Lucy Steele (Sullivan in a second role) is introduced as a distant cousin to Elinor and Marianne. She pulls Elinor aside to reveal her four-year secret engagement with Edward.
At the start of Act II, the sisters have moved for a time to London. Marianne is eager to reunite with Willoughby there, while Elinor is quietly heartbroken by Lucy’s claim on Edward. Willoughby turns out to be a jerk, rejects Marianne through a letter, and Marianne falls into a deep depression.
At the Rep, great comic performances surround the sisters as they mourn their love lives. Mrs. Jennings (Laura Gordon in a second role), mother of Lady Middleton, is a booming, gossipy, often tipsy treat. Nick Gabriel performs his second role, Robert Ferrars, a flamboyant character whose mere facial expressions caused the audience to erupt in laughter.
However, Act II also sees a lot of exposition. Colonel Brandon (Driscoll in a second role) appeared earlier at Barton Park, and it was made clear that he was drawn to young Marianne. He comes to explain his past to Elinor—the loss of his first love Eliza, and his acquisition of her young daughter.
We also hear from Elinor for the first time about her true feelings. Marianne has hogged the depression spotlight, but Elinor explains that, actually, she’s been sad, too, for four months. Of course, this is Austen, so the language is not so brief or casual.
Willoughby offers his own monologue as he visits the sisters in Colonel Brandon’s home after they leave London in a hurry. Marianne has fallen very ill with an “infection” (perhaps of the heart?), and while Elinor won’t allow him to see her, she listens to his flimsy explanation about deserting Marianne because she’s not rich.
Things wrap up pretty quickly. A cured Marianne begins a courtship with Colonel Brandon. Lucy ends up with Robert Ferrars, so Edward is free to ask Elinor to marry him. The sisters are exceedingly happy in the end because, of course, they’re getting married.
I’m tempted to insert a 21st century argument: It seems antiquated and silly that the Dashwood sisters are super depressed through most of the play, based on the way a few stupid boys treat them. Can’t they have fun with each other? Perhaps befriend Lucy Steele? Romp around London, which they’re visiting for the first time? Find happiness outside of marriage?
But I get it; this is the way things were. And it was nice for a night to hear that Austen language, of long, pretty sentences that convey ideas so thoroughly and elegantly — but falls short of passion.
Sense and Sensibility runs through Jan. 13 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. See the full schedule and purchase tickets online, or call 414 224-9490.