Review by Ben Millett
My wife Katie and I attended the 11 June production of a Sense & Sensibility staged reading. The new adaptation by Kerry Skram was performed by the Repertory Theater of Iowa at Terrace Hill, the Iowa governor’s mansion. A light supper of carrot-ginger soup, a chicken salad sandwich and open-faced cucumber sandwich, grapes, and apple slices was served. We were seated with seven of the other 40 or so attendees. Five had previously attended productions at Terrace Hill and were not necessarily Janites. The others at the table had a cat named Bingley, so it should be obvious why they were at a performance of a Jane Austen adaptation. We had an enjoyable discussion during supper about our favorite of Jane’s novels and some of their adaptations.
The staged reading was performed in one of the mansion’s front drawing rooms, as an homage to Jane’s reading/performance of her novels to her family in their drawing room. Actors were in costume and moved about the set, but as it was a staged reading, they held the scripts in hand and referred to them throughout. The three different settings (namely Norland, Barton Cottage, and Brandon’s estate) were portrayed by the rearrangement or introduction/removal of four chairs and sofas. The performance opened with Henry Dashwood dismissing his wife and three daughters so that he might consult with his son John concerning the father’s will (the consultation was implied as John simply looked at the will and said something to the effect of “Oh, my”). As AustenBlog readers know the story, I won’t repeat each scene, but I will mention a few of the interesting choices made by the playwright. If I were to revise the script, this entire first scene would be cut or at least given an overhaul. Perhaps it was kept in because the director played Henry Dashwood, but within the 3-5 minutes of the scene, the daughters and Mrs. Dashwood walked into and out of the room two or three times without saying a word (if I recall correctly). There was maybe a total of 10 lines between the two Dashwood men, but no direct mention that Henry was dying. He walked around somewhat slowly and made a few sounds that suggested he was in pain. The entire scene had a lot of movement and cryptic references to what was going to happen to the father, but no real substance that advanced the plot in a significant way.
Shortly after the Dashwoods’ arrival to Barton Cottage, Sir John Middleton convinced them to host a party. We later learned that this party substituted for Mrs. Jenning’s excursion to London. Willoughby showed up to the party alone, claiming that he had been forced to come by his aunt, though the scene ended with Margaret mentioning that his aunt wasn’t even invited. While at the party, Willoughby ignored Marianne for the most part, but did hand her the note in which he attempts to justify his absence and behavior. The scene didn’t play very well as it seemed unlikely the Middletons would make their poor relations host a party in the tiny cottage. They are silly people, but not completely without sense. Further, in the novel, one of the big shocks to Marianne at the crowded London party is finding Willoughby with another woman and him essentially ignoring Marianne completely. That Willoughby would show up at the party of his own volition and then attempt to ignore Marianne seems out of character. The following scene started with Marianne being confined her to room due to illness, with no explanation as to what caused the illness. The audience was left to imagine what had caused the illness, because it surely couldn’t have been the surprise of seeing Willoughby and then reading his note.
The first time Colonel Brandon met Edward was when Edward arrived at the cottage to propose to Elinor. In the course of the scene, the two men were left in the room after all of the women had fled to console Elinor upon learning Edward did not marry Lucy. There was a humorous exchange between the two which played well in the context of this adaptation. This bit highlighted an issue with the adaptation. At times, the audience needed to rely on its familiarity with the material to explain motivations or actions of the characters. For others, that familiarity was a hinderance. This scene was an example of the latter. We needed to ignore that Colonel Brandon had offered the curacy of his estate to Edward so that Edward and Fanny might have a comfortable living when married. Colonel Brandon was one of the least fleshed-out of characters in the production and showing his generosity would have gone far to keep him from being the wallflower he was here.
Following the performance, which was about 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission, a dessert of chocolate or lemon torte was served during a discussion with the director and actors. The playwright portrayed Elinor and was therefore also in attendance. The program indicated two Iowa State University professors of English would be present to provide insight into the world of Jane Austen, but no explanation was provided for why they weren’t there. The discussion centered around the adaptation itself, with the director soliciting input on what worked and what did not. There were several people in the audience who were quite enamored with the entire production and thought it the best adaptation they had seen. Katie was rather disappointed by the acting and how boring Colonel Brandon was. On the whole, I enjoyed the production, especially considering the limited amount of time and number of actors available for a stage production. I doubt, though, that I would want to see it again without addressing some of the issues I mention above.
It seemed that this adaptation was highly influenced by the Emma Thompson film adaptation. While lines were used from the book, many had been shortened/altered just as Ms. Thompson had done. As we drove home from the play, Katie and I talked about the need of another adaptation. I thought that if any adaptation really wanted to be successful, they needed to bring a new interpretation to the material. The differences between Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle) and Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightley) have already been discussed in detail in Persuasions Online, but I think they both work well, story-wise, because the adapter was consistent with his/her interpretation of the source. Even if one interpretation resonates with a viewer more than another interpretation, the second interpretation will make you talk about what you saw and make you reflect on whether your interpretation was accurate. If an adaptation does not provide something new, something that hasn’t already been seen in another adaptation, there is no material reason to pursue the new adaptation. I think this is why we weren’t blown over by Kerry Skram’s adaptation of Sense & Sensibility. We could have stayed home and watched Emma Thompson’s version (fast-forwarding through any of the scenes that Ms. Thompson invented for her version) and seen pretty much the same thing. There was some sense that Marianne was just settling for Colonel Brandon in this version, but it wasn’t developed enough to really be interesting. I wonder about the future of this adaptation. While I wish everyone in the production success, I don’t think that they will find what they desire in Sense & Sensibility as it currently is.
The dinner sounded good, at least! –Ed.