Sensibly solid, locally crafted take on a Jane Austen classic opens Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season
Winnipeg writer Ellen Peterson's new stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility will bring joy to Austen fans
"Will we ever be happy again?"
That question — posed by Marianne Dashwood to her older sister in Sense and Sensibility — draws us into a new stage adaptation of the 207-year-old tale of the Dashwood sisters.
While I won't spoil the answer to the question, I can say that Jane Austen fans will be perfectly happy with Winnipeg playwright Ellen Peterson's new stage adaptation of the author's 1811 classic, opening the mainstage season at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Peterson's version trims the sprawling novel to a relatively lean 140 minutes (with intermission), but wisely hews close to the source material.
Like Austen's novel, it follows the Dashwoods — the sensible eldest sister, Elinor (Heather Russell), charming Marianne (Julie Lumsden), the youngest, Margaret (Natalie Viebrock), and the family matriarch, referred to only as Mrs. Dashwood (Sharon Bajer).
This stage version begins shortly after the death of Mr. Dashwood, an event that has left the four women more or less broke and reliant on the kindness of relatives — unless the older sisters can find suitable (and hopefully wealthy) husbands.
So yes, much of the happiness of women in this play, as in Austen's original, relies on their relationships with men — not, perhaps, exactly a model message for 21st-century women and girls.
Yet at the same time, here is a story centred around strong and well-defined female characters who, while they may be searching for men to bring stability to their lives, also rely on each other for much of their strength.
Peterson's script and director Krista Jackson's production highlight the relationship of the two older sisters that forms the story's core. Lumsden's graceful take on Marianne and Russell's stoic Elinor give us relatable and believable characters whom we genuinely want to see happy.
They're backed up by strong supporting performances in the cast of 13 mostly local actors.
Bajer does outstanding work as Mrs. Dashwood, moving smoothly from showing a tragic and quiet desperation to moments of humour (somehow drawing a laugh with a line about dying of typhoid).
Indeed, Peterson's script is amply laced with humour. Terri Cherniack as the gossiping Mrs. Jennings, Aaron Pridham as awkward suitor Edward Ferrars and Alissa Watson as the icy Fanny Dashwood are particularly successful at striking those comic notes.
It also has a subtle but deep point, and one still sadly relevant, about the lengths people will go to for financial security, and about the sometimes crippling effects of the fear of poverty — "The perfect reason for anything," says the rakish, but also sad, suitor Willoughby (played charismatically by Luke Humphrey).
See a scene from Sense and Sensibility:
As playwright, Peterson also moves the story steadily along, largely (if not quite entirely) avoiding the long stretches of exposition that often accompany novels turned stage plays. Jackson's production similarly moves with a briskly measured pace.
It is a period piece, and Judith Bowden's costumes and set design — largely monochromatic, moving from shades of white in the first act to variations of black in the second — give the production an elegant, if perhaps somewhat too staid, esthetic.
Which ultimately, perhaps, sums up this take on Sense and Sensibility. It doesn't drastically reinvent Austen's story or take any any great risks with it — and for a story that's endured for more than two centuries, perhaps that's just fine.
Your enjoyment of it will likely vary depending on your level of attachment to Jane Austen's work, but it is undeniably a solidly sensible take on the much-loved tale.
Sense and Sensibility runs at the Royal MTC John Hirsch Mainstage until Nov. 10.