By Matthew Munroe
When I hear, “Jane Austen,” I think, “The original romantic comedy writer.” Even though Jane Austen was certainly not the first to weave comedic tales of complicated love triangles (just look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream), her novels have played a major role in shaping the modern genre of the Rom-Com. In fact, her novel, Emma, was the inspiration for the hit 90s rom-com, Clueless. This summer, IU Summer Theatre brings her first, if less well-known, novel, Sense and Sensibility, to the stage, with all the trappings that we look for and love in romantic comedies.
Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, finding their way in a world in which finding love and marriage is their only chance to better their lives. However, they both have very different ideas about love and how to find it. Director Dale McFadden describes this difference well, saying, “As the title indicates, here there are two types of emotional responses to the world: sense, a calm endurance that things will work out or they’ll be accepted, and sensibility, which is that ‘live completely by your feelings however off the handle they may be’”. In the beginning, it appears as if Elinor is the embodiment of sense and Marianne of sensibility, but things quickly become complicated when neither way of dealing with the world around them gives the sisters what they so desire: love.
Jane Austen’s novel is complex in the way it explores these themes, so one has to wonder how it can be translated to the stage. That is the challenge and joy of producing an adaptation: figuring out how to tell the original story in a new medium. As Linda Hutcheon writes in the second edition of her book, A Theory of Adaptation, “A performance adaptation must dramatize: description, narration, and represented thoughts must be transcoded into speech, actions, sounds, and visual images” (40). This adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and IU Summer Theatre’s production, does that incredibly well.
The adaptation, written by Joseph Hanreddy and JR Sullivan, remains faithful to the spirit and themes of the novel, while also realizing that changes need to be made for the story to be as effective on the stage as it is on the page. What exemplifies their faithfulness to the novel is the fact that the director and actors can easily reference the novel to clarify the inner emotional life of any particular scene, something the IU Summer Theatre cast has done many times in rehearsal. This ease of reference comes from the fact that much of the play’s dialogue is lifted straight from the novel, so there is almost always a one-to-one correspondence between scenes in the play and events in the novel. Of course, some events have been cut, some scenes reorganized, and some dialogue added, as in any adaptation, but it is still possible to tell, at any given moment, what event in the novel is being played onstage, a testament to Hanreddy and Sullivan’s ability to translate the specificity and spirit of Austen’s narration into the visual language of theatre.
What makes the play a particularly effective piece of theatre, in my opinion, is Hanreddy and Sullivan’s choice to write the play with no scene breaks. Instead, the transitions between the multitude of locations present in the novel are reduced to simple, choreographed set changes that often have dialogue running over them. With these minimal, suggestive transitions, the characters move from Norland Park to Devonshire as quickly as they do in the novel. As a result, the play does not become bogged down in the elaborate sets and costumes so typical of period dramas. Rather, this production indicates travel to a new location by the mere wearing of a shawl and the replacement of a desk here and a chair there. These fast, suggestive changes keep the play moving at an exciting and engaging tempo.
While these rapid transitions allow the play to maintain the spirit and the pace of the novel, they do create a challenge for the director: how to choreograph the transitions so that they are as quick as possible. This is a logistical puzzle that Dale has had to face, but one that he has solved capably. While watching rehearsals, I often wondered, “How on earth is this transition going to happen quickly?” overwhelmed by the number of people who have to enter and exit and the amount of furniture that has to be moved. However, every time, Dale works with the cast to solve the puzzle of the transition, and it runs like clockwork on the first try.
IU Summer Theatre’s production of Sense and Sensibility is sure to offer much to please every viewer, from those intimately familiar with the novel to those less acquainted with Austen’s work. The adaptation strikes the right balance between being faithful to the novel while also being able to stand on its own as a piece of theatre. Sense and Sensibility is a great complement to the classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and together they will make IU Summer Theatre’s repertory productions something special!