By John Lyle Belden
It’s intriguing to see how a classic work of literature is interpreted in adapting to the stage. If, upon hearing that Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is now playing at Indiana Repertory Theatre, you think you only recently saw it, you’d be mistaken. The IRT version, adapted by Jessica Swale, is not the play that was performed at the Civic Theatre in 2018.
The differences go beyond the name on the program. While a major theme of “Sense and Sensibility” is, in all cases, the lack of power women had in English society and law, the Kate Hamill script used by Civic emphasizes the insidious nature of gossip as both social control and cheap entertainment. Though Swale’s take has a definite nod to the wagging tongues, there is an overall lighter touch to the story. Aside from its characters’ struggles, the novel’s situations are rife with bits of humor. And in that the earlier production could be considered a “rom-com,” IRT’s show is more of a sitcom.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Dashwood (Elizabeth Laidlaw) and her daughters Elinor (Helen Joo Lee), Marianne (Cereyna Jade Bougouneau), and Margaret (Claire Kashman) find themselves kicked out of their home. The girls’ half-brother John Dashwood (Ron E. Rains) inherits the property, and his spiteful elitist wife Fanny (Devan Mathias) wants it all to herself. The displaced Dashwoods move to a cottage near the sea, under the eye of cousin Sir John Middleton (Rains) and his busybody mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Priscilla Lindsay).
While prospects for young English women around the year 1800 with hardly any dowry aren’t good, our heroines have the fortune to attract suitors including Fanny’s kind brother, Edward Ferrars (Casey Hoekstra); local gentleman Colonel Brandon (La Shawn Banks); and the dashing John Willoughby (Nate Santana). They are vying for the hand of Elinor or Marianne – young Margaret, a budding “naturalist,” is too occupied with her collection of invertebrates and sea creatures.
But then, Jennings’ cousin Lucy Steele (Caroline Chu) confides to Elinor her secret engagement to one of the men.
Some actors play more than one part, such as Hoekstra’s entertaining moments as Edward’s goofy brother. Also notable is that Mathias – ironically a nice person offstage – manages to play four distinct characters, none of which you want to spend more than a few seconds with, often to hilarious effect.
The play also features ethnically blind casting, which in these days of “Bridgerton” on TV and online debates over the color of a mermaid don’t seem too odd. Besides, no one on stage is an 18th-century English person in real life. These actors were picked for exceptional talent and stage presence, and none feel out of place. In fact, the most surreal of this company is how Santana looks like he just stepped out of the cover illustration of a Harlequin romance novel.
And we must note that it is wonderful to see Pricilla Lindsay again; a past IRT mainstay, she has been working at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. Her joyous presence as ever-optimistic Mrs. Jennings is like a reflection of Lindsay herself.
Directed by Peter Amster (who also directed “Pride and Prejudice” at IRT years ago), this classic story of romantic misadventure has its serious moments, but despite the threat of tragedy, love and laughter shine through – something we can hope for in our day as well.
Performances run through October 9 at the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis. For information and tickets, visit irtlive.com.