It is a truth universally acknowledged that a stage or screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, however well-intentioned, must be unfavorably compared to the original.
The cast, costumes and sets can’t possibly satisfy every reader’s expectations. (“Emma, a blond?” “Mr. Darcy wouldn’t be caught dead in that cravat!” “Mansfield Park is supposed to be made of brick, hello!”)
The script will have to leave out some characters and plot details — absences average viewers will not notice but devotees will perceive as acts of violence. (“They killed off Mrs. Middleton?”)
Not every astringent Austenian turn of phrase can be included in a two-hour drama; that’s simple math. Yet playwrights and screenwriters sometimes feel the need to add dialogue or even entire situations of their own devising. (Yes, Douglas McGrath, I’m talking about the archery scene in your 1996 “Emma.”)
After a lifetime of such shocks, Austen mavens — or Jane-ites, as the most devout call themselves — could be forgiven for approaching South Coast Repertory’s new “Sense and Sensibility” with trepidation. It boasts strong credentials: a well regarded playwright, Jessica Swale; a much-admired director, Casey Stangl; and a cast of both beloved regulars and promising newcomers to SCR.
But how does it treat our sacred cows?
The short answer is: Lovingly. Like a five-star hotel. Get comfy, Jane-ites! Maybe not every choice will thrill everyone, but the production captures the essential aspects of Austen’s novel: Its wisdom, affection and wit; its insight into the foolish but redeemable human heart. With these qualities in place, many deviations from orthodoxy can be forgiven, and even celebrated.
For example, the cast here is racially diverse. In an SCR podcast, Stangl describes the choice as “ ‘Hamilton’ casting” — intended to represent the ethnic makeup of society as we experience it today. Presented matter-of-factly, without any fuss, it works. Curiosity about how the genteel Mrs. Dashwood could have three daughters of different races in 1811 seems beside the point once the audience gets swept up in the taut suspense.
Taut suspense? In a story about the primogeniture laws of Regency England and the marital prospects of two impoverished gentlewomen? The action takes place primarily in sitting rooms. Yet on opening weekend, every time a new visitor walked into one of those rooms, thrilled gasps rose from the audience.
The plot is Austen’s, but the theatrical élan with which it is presented here is also a credit to Swale’s script, which condenses large swaths of exposition into punchy, cinematic scenes that sometimes unspool in counterpoint on different parts of the stage. Francois-Pierre Couture has built a simple set that is transformed into various locations by David Murakami’s fluid, vibrant video projections (my only complaint is that they often look a little generic).
As Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who are ruled by, respectively, the head and the heart, Hilary Ward and Rebecca Mozo have supplanted Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in my pantheon. (Don’t tell circa-1995 me that I wrote those words; she wouldn’t understand.) Swale has filled out the character of Margaret, the youngest Dashwood sister, to provide steady laughs, and Desirée Mee Jung delivers them. The male love interests are perfectly cast: Josh Odsess-Rubin’s endearingly awkward Edward evokes Hugh Grant, who played the role opposite Thompson; as Willoughby, Preston Butler III is dreamy; and Dileep Rao imparts a sympathetic dignity to the unrewarding (and rather underdeveloped, even in the book) part of Colonel Brandon.
But one of the nicest surprises of the production is the way the actors in supporting parts — they all play more than one — keep stealing bits of the scenes from the leads. Abigail Marks is a constant delight as both Fanny, the girls’ greedy sister-in-law, and Mrs. Jennings, their nosy, matchmatching neighbor. As Mrs. Dashwood, Nike Doukas is refined almost to the point of incorporeality, while her Mrs. Palmer is an irrepressible chatterbox. Matt Orduña plays two gentlemen, included largely as plot devices, with amusingly clueless jocosity. Joel Gelman makes a hearty meal out of his brief appearances as various servants and the sarcastic Mr. Palmer.
They’re all clearly having fun, popping on and off the stage in Maggie Moran’s sumptuous period costumes, a parade of beautiful presents for the audience to unwrap.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Sense and Sensibility’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 30.
Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes