Opening night at the Repertory Theatre of St Louis is always a delight, the energy is high and the audience filled with St Louis theater people. And delightful certainly describes the opening night of Jon Jory’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, not only because the direction is strong, the ensemble equally polished and the technical aspects gorgeous, but also because there are a number of St Louis actors onstage which added to the celebratory atmosphere. In fact, most of the cast was making their debut on the Rep stage and the whole theater was infused with fresh anticipation.
The cast is a strong ensemble but there were several performances that bear spotlighting. Nancy Lemenager and Amelia McClain lead the ensemble as the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, one “sense” the other “sensibility” or the romanticism that was becoming fashionable in poetry and literature at the turn of that century. Lemenager is particularly strong in a scene with Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) when she discovers her sister’s beau, Willoughby, has a tendency toward deceit. (Charles Andrew Callaghan plays Willoughby with passion and rakish appeal.) Lemenager and Poldulke are earnest in the scene and the audience, as well as Elinor, warm considerably to the Colonel’s rather reserved personality. McClain’s Marianne travels a credible path from flighty chit to a woman of “sense” and substance.
Also excellent are Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as the gossipy yenta, Mrs. Jennings and V Craig Heidenreich as the jovial Sir John Middleton. Heidenreich also played the doctor and his characters were distinctive but I enjoyed Sir John’s boisterous sincerity.
A technical aspect of the play that was handled by the actors was the scene changes. As soon as a scene finished, actors emerged from all entrances, swirled set pieces to a new position and exited with a rapidity that must leave them exhausted but kept the pacing energetic. It was orchestrated beautifully with the added benefit of not having to hit the gym for the run of the show. I also enjoyed Jory’s use of the entire theater for the scenes, which added an extra layer of lightness and pleasure.
Period pieces at the Rep always evoke visions of elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes and indeed, Patricia McGourty’s Edwardian costumes are lovely but I was surprised to see the ultra-modern set by Tom Burch, a doorframe, an ornamental hanging molding and a large moon/sun/moon hanging in front of the cyc wall. But the genius of the concept is immediately apparent when you realize the set has to serve multiple scenes in myriad locations, often in rapid-fire succession. And it gives lighting designer, Ann G. Wrightson, the opportunity to sculpt the stage with delicious, glorious light. I especially delighted in the effect that caused the clouds to scuttle across the sky, just they way you might imagine, on a sunny English country afternoon. Ms Wrightson’s design is enchanting.
One of the questions I always ask is “Why this play, now and here?” One might argue that our country has a love affair with most things British, Jane Austen, Downton Abbey, and the lyrical accents being only a few bits and pieces, but I saw themes that are as equally current in our time as they were in Austen’s. There is a preoccupation with money and the marrying of it that still rings true, although we no longer consider “working for a living” to be beneath us as gentlemen did in that time and certainly women who worked belonged only to the lower classes.
Another theme from which we are not evolving fast enough for my taste is, “chicks dig jerks.” Yes, maybe Willoughby really loves Marianne but in the end, he chooses money over love and Marianne requires heartbreak and near death to appreciate the resolute and constant love of Colonel Brandon.
Sense and Sensibility continues at the Loretto Hilton through March 3rd.