By Connie Shakalis, H-T Theater Reviewer
“Persuasion,” the novel, was Jane Austen’s last, published half a year after she died. Some scholars believe that someone other than Austen chose the title, with Austen intending to call it “The Elliots.” Indeed, the novel — as well as playwright Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of it, playing at the IU Summer Theatre — revolves around the Elliot family. They, and their sweet-and-sour medley of friends and acquaintances, educate us in the details of social climbing, closeted agendas, knowing “what’s best” for others, vanity, hanging in even when your true love seems lost, and, well, persuasion — of others and oneself.
Every time I see a good play, I feel like going home and dispensing with most of my self-help books: My problems’ solutions end up appearing stage left, right and center. As singer Roberta Flack said about a stranger singing his song one night in a show she happened to attend, “I felt as if he knew me.” Austen, consummate storyteller, knows human nature.
Anne Elliot, an Englishwoman in her late 20s, is at the heart of the action. She is still in love with a naval officer, whom she had been persuaded several years earlier to reject. She wonders which is better — to be inflexible (unable to be persuaded) or to allow the opinions of others to sway one, in this case, in the wrong direction.
Anne is likable; she is humble, intelligent, gracious and supportive of her friends. Her huge-headed and shallow father (”He could read his own history with an interest that never failed him”), played by Henry Woronicz, is uninterested in her. So is her icy older sister Elizabeth (Erin Logan). Both believe youth’s rosy bloom has abandoned Anne — after all, she is 27! Although she is somewhat of an orphan in her own unappreciative family, her godmother, Lady Russell, grasps Anne’s intelligence and wisdom. Lady Russell serves the significant role of mother-surrogate, and as can happen with maternal love, Lady Russell interferes. It was she who eight years ago persuaded Anne not “to marry a sailor of no connections.”
That sailor has become respected naval officer Capt. Wentworth. He is one of the 19th century’s “new gentlemen,” independent, intrepid and — perhaps most appealing to Anne —self-made.
Throughout the play, a colorful assortment of friends visits, while potential suitors compete. Capt. Wentworth, smoldering from Anne’s past rejection, in turn, appears to reject her. Seeing her for the first time since the broken engagement, he snubs her, then openly pursues the younger, spunkier Louisa Musgrove (Julia Klinestiver).
Tara Chiusano is a highlight as Anne’s deliciously self-focused, hypochondriacal married younger sister, Mary Musgrove. When Anne goes out of her way to assist her one afternoon, Mary asks, utterly perplexed, “What (better things) could YOU possibly have had to do?”
Meaghan Deiter is entertaining as Lady Russell and the Elliots’ tenant Mrs. Croft. As the opera singer, she also sings a good “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” by Gluck. Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin who courts her — we discover, for her family status — is played with reptilian smoothness by Jason Craig West. Justino Brokaw is ebullient and appealing as Anne’s brother-in-law, Charles Musgrove. Jenny McKnight’s Mrs. Musgrove embodies a mother’s vivacious affection for her children (something Anne misses), and her people-pleasing dowager viscountess, Lady Dalrymple, adds to the play’s humor.
Capts. Benwick and Harville, friends of Capt. Wentworth, are played with sincerity and warmth by Devin May and Nicholas Jenkins. Courtney Relyea-Spivack is a nicely cloying Mrs. Clay, eager to attach to a man.
Grant Goodman, who I had seen the night before as Lord Berowne in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” reveals his versatility as an actor; the two roles are eons apart. As Shakespeare’s Berowne, he is unleashed and outspoken. As Austen’s Capt. Wentworth, centered and discreet. By the play’s end, he blames not Anne but “my own private doubts” for his misplaced bitterness. His “I have loved none but you” is good enough for a top-40. I melt.
Ashley Dillard’s Anne Elliot is patient and serene. As she did in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Dillard had me almost crying along with her in the play’s sentimental moments. While Mrs. Musgrove merrily selects lace for her daughters’ wedding dresses one afternoon, Anne, giving up on love, reads aloud a letter left by Capt. Wentworth. Particularly moving are their two voices heard together, his coming from offstage.
Dale McFadden, the department’s associate chairman, directed this talented cast. An effective aspect was each actor narrating his or her own entrance, giving the audience a preview of who was about to do what.
Katie Cowan Sickmeier’s costumes were so convincing that my seat mate failed to realize that seven of the actors played multiple parts.
Since this is repertory theater, the cast takes turns performing “Persuasion” and William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: one cast; two very different plays made up of very different roles — one day after the other. It is dizzying to imagine the actors’ focus and energy.
Jane Austen said, “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” I say, I think you do want to see this play.
If you go
WHO: IU Summer Theatre.
WHAT: “Persuasion,” adapted for the stage from Jane Austen’s novel by Jennifer LeBlanc.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 and 22; 2 p.m. July 15 and 23.
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $10-$20 for each show. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.