By Matthew Waterman
One of the many lessons of Jane Austen is illustrated by Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility”:
“After all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant — it is not fit — it is not possible that it should be so.”
Idolatrous devotion to one single person (the wrong person) is an affliction common to both of Indiana University Summer Theatre’s repertory plays this year: “Sense and Sensibility” as well as Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
IU Summer Theatre, formerly known as Indiana Festival Theatre, rotates the two shows through the Wells-Metz Theatre this month, performed by the same cast of students and professionals.
Other than “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” is probably Jane Austen’s second-best-known novel. This production uses the stage adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, two American regional theater directors.
Helming the production is director Dale McFadden.
No Austen novice, McFadden directed IU’s November 2014 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” This adaptation and interpretation sufficiently “theatricalize” “Sense and Sensibility” without sacrificing subtlety or substance.
When Henry Dashwood dies, nearly his entire fortune falls upon his son from his first marriage, John Dashwood. John’s miserliness, stoked by his wife’s selfishness, dashes any hopes that his half-sisters and their mother had of benefiting from the family riches.
Henry Dashwood’s widow and her daughters, Marianne and Elinor, move to a cottage on the property of John Middleton, leaving the family estate to John and Fanny Dashwood. The Middletons are cousins of the Dashwoods. Their irritating modes of behavior are counterbalanced by their generosity.
Any fan of classic English literature knows that the marrying-off of single young women is at the center of so many plots; this is no exception. The move interrupts a courtship between Elinor and Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars. At the new residence, Elinor patiently waits weeks for a visit from Edward.
Meanwhile, Marianne becomes acquainted with John Willoughby, a nephew of the Middletons’ neighbor. From the moment Willoughby gallantly rescues Marianne after she sprains an ankle amidst a thunderstorm, Marianne can think of nothing but him. It isn’t long before that couple, too, are separated by circumstance; Willoughby is forced to leave town indefinitely.
As the show progresses on, the Dashwood daughters discover that the love they thought they had discovered was not exactly as it seemed. Austen’s plot is long and winding (almost as if it was meant to be a 400-page novel), but Hanreddy and Sullivan make it relatively easy to follow.
It might be helpful to review the family tree before the show or at intermission by studying the annotated character list in the program, but one certainly does not need to have read the book to enjoy the performance.
“Sense and Sensibility” clocks in at three hours. Long, perhaps, but not too long. The play is consistently entertaining and often funny. McFadden’s production mines the humor wherever it can be found, but never in poor taste.
The Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are played by Ashley Dillard and Amanda Catania, respectively. Dillard highlights Marianne’s zest and vibrancy, while Catania presents an honest and good-natured Elinor. Elinor is generally considered to represent “sense” while Marianne represents “sensibility.” The actors play up this distinction nicely.
Jason Craig West is so believable and alluring as the bright and chivalrous John Willoughby that the audience may fall in love with him just as Marianne does. His early conversations with Marianne on poetry seem so genuine that the doubts later cast on his character are a surprising disappointment to all.
Grant Goodman does well in the role of Colonel Brandon, an upstanding but underwhelming friend to John Middleton. The Middletons themselves are a pair to behold; David Kortemeier’s Sir John is a blindingly bright foil to Jessica Schroeder’s dull and sour Lady Middleton. The cast overall is truly a strong one.
Reuben Lucas’ scenic design, Allen Hahn’s lighting design and Kate Hershberger’s sound design are all straightforward and period-appropriate. Linda Pisano’s gorgeous costumes help to demarcate which character an actor is playing, since many play two roles.
It’s hard to say precisely what makes an Austen novel (or an Austen play) so rewarding and enduring; nothing in the content seems particularly outstanding or groundbreaking today. But “Sense and Sensibility” is brought to life this month in one of the best-executed page-to-stage adaptations this town has seen for a while. This show is not one to be missed.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Summer Theatre.
WHAT: “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen, adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan.
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 13, 15, 17, 19, 21 and 23; 2 p.m. July 16.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Available by phone at 800-745-3000, in person at IU Auditorium Box Office or online at theatre.indiana.edu.