Kate Hurster and Victoria Mack in
the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Sense and Sensibility."
The holidays arrive, and it seems everyone is longing to be in 19th-century England. Of course there’s Charles Dickens' classic holiday story, a version of which is once again lodged at the Pabst Theater. This year, The Milwaukee Rep has decided to double down by filling its Powerhouse stage with Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility.
It’s a sensible choice. Austen’s novels are among the best known and loved in the canon, and adaptations of them continue to be popular on television, screen and stage. And the Milwaukee Rep has a solid track record with Austen. It’s original adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan) set Rep box office records in 2009, and has since gone on to productions at prestigious theaters like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and South Coast Repertory Theatre.
But this adaptation—written by Brit Mark Healy and directed by Los Angeles-based director Art Manke—shows the perils of adapting novels for the stage as well as the pleasures.
First the pleasures. Manke’s production is inventive and lush. Set designer Scott Bradley tackles the formidable challenge of the novel’s multiple locations with a set that suggests both the verdant English countryside and the exuberance of the London social scene. It’s beautifully lit by Rep regular Thomas Hase. And Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are appropriately lovely or eyepoppingly outré when they need to be.
Manke’s staging is brisk and fluid, at times consciously following the cues of the estate balls that are often the centerpiece in Austen’s stories. The story flies by effortlessly, with charming performances by members of an eight-person ensemble cast.
But the story’s bustling pace is part of the problem, as well. Healy’s adaptation is necessarily exposition heavy, following the two Dashwood sisters through family tumult, multiple suitors, and several changes in venue. Whereas dramatizations of Pride and Prejudice can really zoom in on the shifting relationship of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, there’s little chance for depth in the shifting affinities in Sense and Sensibility. There are scenes which allow the fine actors Kate Hurster and Victoria Mack (playing the Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, respectively) to suggest some of the soul-searching and self-discovery which is at the core of Austen’s heroines, but they are brief and cursory. There are rich pleasures here, some great comic turns and high romance. But by skimming through the story instead of pulling us into it, this Austen plays more like a fairy tale than a social portrait of any sort of psychological depth.