In spite of a talented cast and attractive production values, TheatreWorks' production of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" never quite gets off the ground, failing to make an effective transition from page to stage.
The production opened last week at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. In its American premiere, the play was written by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham in an adaptation of the Austen novel.
Austen's plot focuses on two young women, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (Jennifer Le Blanc and Katie Fabel), who are forced to depend on the good graces of their Aunt Jennings (Stacy Ross) after losing their parents and any means of support.
Their move into Barton Cottage in Devonshire is cause for some sadness, especially when Elinor is leaving a potential romance with earnest Edward Ferrars (Thomas Gorrebeeck) behind. But it becomes interesting when two men begin pursuing Marianne: the older but thoroughly solid and respectable Colonel Brandon (Mark Anderson Phillips), and the charming, devil-may-care Willoughby (Michael Scott McLean).
When both Brandon and Willoughby suddenly depart for London under mysterious circumstances, Aunt Jennings contrives to take both girls to town, hoping to help them land husbands one way or another. Alas, Lucy Steele (Lucy Littlewood) smashes Elinor's hopes with Edward, and Willoughby proves elusive and deceptive, leading to much distress for the young women and more mystery.
Well, it's Austen, and rather predictable, but I shan't spoil the end if you don't know it. The script is faithful to the book, but isn't a slavish copy; there are characters and plot lines omitted, some of which might have done the play some good. Overall there is an unfortunate tendency to play some scenes largely as written, so there is a great deal of talk, a veritable mountain of verbiage. This in spite of the authors' stated intent to create something other than "turning the pages of a novel onstage."
Director Robert Kelley has also added period songs from time to time, sung as solos or duets, or even a sextet. Sometimes colorful, sometimes amusing, always nicely performed, these musical interludes nevertheless interrupt the narrative, slowing down the action even farther and feeling superfluous to it. Less could have done for giving us a taste of Marianne's musical talents.
In short, Austen suffers from too much adoration as well as not enough, and the play comes across as merely pedantic and long-winded. One would not be enticed to read the novel by seeing the play.
Fortunately, the production is inhabited by marvelous actors all bravely doing their best to elevate the material with honest portrayals. Le Blanc and Fabel are quite adept and well-cast as classic Austen heroines, delivering believable characters struggling within the restrictions of their time and genders. Le Blanc especially is the master of subtle gestures and expressions that reveal to us what she cannot show to society.
Gorrebeeck is quite charming as the shy Edward, casting furtive, sweet glances at Elinor in spite of himself. The confrontation among Edward, Lucy and Elinor is one of the best scenes in the play because of the delightful acting. Littlewood does an admirable job playing the sole feminine foil left in the plot, wonderfully brittle and conniving. Phillips is quite credible and suitably reserved as Brandon, although he seems to be acting older than he needs to be.
Ross steals the show as the busybody aunt, bustling and scheming with relish. She's an audience favorite, and her mugging and meddling provide welcome comic relief from the more tedious stretches of dialogue.
Joe Ragey's set design is drop-dead stunning, leaving the stage relatively bare and concentrating beautiful detail in the backdrops. The numerous garden pieces effectively differentiate various locales and create the iconic English country garden. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes do pretty justice to the period and add a bit of whimsy besides, reminding us of the comedy in the text.
However, the production as a whole doesn't take flight as much as one would hope. It's sweet, sometimes engaging, and occasionally amusing, but can too often feel like a long 180 minutes.
"Sense and Sensibility," by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham, based on the novel by Jane Austen; presented by TheatreWorks, at Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Runs through Sept. 18, with shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $19-$69.
Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.