No doubt about it, “Sense and Sensibility” is a sacred text for Jane Austen fans. Published anonymously in 1811, the story of the Dashwood family has enjoyed innumerable iterations and fierce criticism from legions of those afflicted with Austenmania.
So, in 2014, it was gutsy for American actor/playwright Kate Hamill to create a fast moving, farce-like stage interpretation. It opened Off-Broadway to considerable success and moved to Broadway in 2016.
In an equally gusty move, Mona Wood-Patterson got the regional rights to mount Hamill’s version as Merely Players’ opening production this fall in the Historic Old Fort Lewis Library in Hesperus.
Last Friday, fans drove 15 miles west of Durango to park in an open field and make their way to the elegant, old building for opening night. A simple, but dazzling, prologue, masterminded by Wood-Patterson, set the tone: Houselights dimmed and the company entered in 19th-century dress, encircling the playing space, facing inward. Each actor held an imaginary book in cupped hands. One by one the players delivered lines from Austen’s text, including, “Good opinion once lost is lost forever.”
And so, Hamill’s very modern interpretation of Austen’s story began. More will not be given away here, but fate, fortune and misfortune intrude in quick succession.
From the opening scene of a happy family, 44 more vignettes spill forth, some with barely a light shift or a brief tableau to mark a transition. Key scenes between two players breathe more fully with conversational tension. Carriage rides are imaginatively evoked in seconds, while complex human interactions are more expansive.
Miraculously, all the plot points come into view. Fourteen actors take on 33 different roles plus animal additions, which are sometimes overdone for laughs. But you always know who is who and where you are – a midlands cottage, a London manner house or a rain-soaked moor. Light and sound effects clarify and dramatize the action, from cozy dinner parties to dangerous midnight mishaps.
Director Wood-Patterson exploits Hamill’s most brilliant conceit, the addition of town gossips. The players slip in and out of their gossip roles with minimal costume additions, scarves for the London rumor mill, for example. The director further differentiates the pressure of social commentary by the way the groups move, dance, twitter and, most effectively, pause after gossip then burst into snide laughter. It’s a cruel social intrusion that is highly dramatic and effectively underscores Wood-Patterson’s program note: “Rumors, gossip and social intolerance can destroy a person and his/her reputation.”
Props speak: Masks resemble keyholes, small French windows reveal busybodies and hand-held picture frames hold living ancestors who underscore the work’s cruel social subtext.
The cast is uniformly bright, smart and convincing. Credit Wood-Patterson for enhancing every character with specific traits; costumers JoAnn Nevils and Jan Blankenship for beautiful Empire-style gowns and brocade waistcoats; choreographer Jessica Jane Harris for subtle dream sequences that express emotion and inventive group party scenes. Credit Charles Ford and his technical crew for transforming the high-ceilinged library into sunny British mornings, cloudy afternoons and stormy nights.
This is a smart, stylish, highly inventive interpretation of a Jane Austen classic. Do whatever you have to do to see a performance.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.