Jane Austen may not be everyone’s cup of theatrical tea (certainly not mine), but considering the period (late 1700s and early 1800s) in which she wrote, and the conditions that prevailed, a certain grudging admiration is elicited.
Austen (1775-1817) was just 19 when she wrote “Sense and Sensibility,” a soapy, talky tale about an impoverished widow and her three daughters cautiously making their way in the world of an England still struggling through the 18th century when women’s property rights were nonexistent. That this story has found its way to a full-blown production at South Coast Repertory is nothing short of remarkable.
SCR and director Casey Stangl have pulled out all the stops to render this meandering melodrama digestible, not the least of which are projection designer David Murakami’s sweeping scenic and cinematic backdrops. The Jessica Swale adaptation is overlong, at just under three hours, but the competent, diverse cast commands attention.
The play centers on the widow (Nike Doukas) and her girls, who have been dispossessed by her husband's death. Doukas, a familiar figure at SCR, turns up later in the show displaying her virtuosity as two other, dissimilar characters.
The two elder daughters have set their caps for a pair of eligible (or at least seemingly so) bachelors who appear emotionally unavailable. Rebecca Mozo shines as the more headstrong of the pair while Hilary Ward underplays splendidly as the shyer sister.
The erstwhile suitors are no prize packages. Preston Butler III is a dashing fellow with more baggage than he'll admit to, while John Odsess-Rubin’s character is a tongue-tied twerp incapable of forming a declarative sentence.
The show’s premier performance comes from two of its most unlikable characters, both portrayed by Abigail Marks, first as a cruel dowager taking possession of the ladies’ property and later as a giddy matchmaker.
Another quite effective character is the youngest sister, played by Desiree Mae Jung, a budding naturalist who’s too young for romance but has her hands full with the bugs and other crawly creatures she collects. Joel Gelman swipes some scenes both as a stiff-backed servant and a harried husband.
David Murakami’s sweeping projection design, which includes Couture’s projected panoramic outdoor scenes, gives the show a rich immediacy, and the vintage period costumes fit the overall picture beautifully.
Whether or not this Austen-tacious project is worthy of 21st century consumption remains at the playgoer’s discretion. Pared of about 45 minutes, “Sense and Sensibility” could be a rich visit to the distant past at South Coast Repertory.
Tom Titus reviews local theater.
If You Go:
What: “Sense and Sensibility”
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. (weekend matinees at 2 p.m.) until Sept. 29
Cost: Start at $23