That Jane Austen is ever popular is a given. Readers have loved her books for more than two hundred years and film and television adaptations abound. Her novels are, of course, written from the female point of view and deal with love and family relations that are often complex and represent individuals primarily of the landed, wealthy, or those modestly so. Sometimes the family struggle is moderately difficult as in Pride and Prejudice or, in the case of Sense and Sensibility—Miss Austen’s first novel published in 1811 and now playing in an adaptation by Jessica Swale at South Coast Repertory—a relatively severe change of fortune. We are not talking about women cast into the street, but rather those whose change in standard of living allows only for a cold cottage, just one servant, and no horses.
Mrs. Dashwood (Nike Doukas) is recently widowed and, due to complex rules of inheritance, her stepson John (Matt Orduña) and his greedy wife Fanny (Abigail Marks) seize possession of the house. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters—Elinor (Hilary Ward), Marianne (Rebecca Mozo) and Margaret (Desirée Mee Jung)—are given a month to arrange their departure. It is wrenching for them to be bustled out of their splendid house and they must rely on the very fortunate generosity of a distant relative, Sir John Middleton (Mr. Orduña), who owns that aforementioned cold cottage and is cheerful in his support. During the month allowed for them to make arrangements for their departure from the only home they know, Elinor meets Edward Ferrars (Josh Odsess-Rubin), a hesitant, moderately tongue-tied young man who instantly falls for her, and she for him. Her younger sister, Marianne, likewise falls for the handsome, dashing Willoughby (Preston Butler III), who is not quite what he seems. The youngest daughter, Margaret, cares only about her study of animals, bugs and fish—anything moves swims or wriggles. She intends to be a naturalist.
As is well known, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and so it is here. There is much complex plot and it will not serve to recount it all here. The story must be absorbed at the theatre. Suffice it to say that there are enough twists and turns, harrowing events and moments of romance to satisfy the most devout Austen lovers.
The South Coast Rep production of Sense and Sensibility is sumptuously mounted, with an expert cast at the top of their game. They embody the manner and morals of regency England with smooth confidence. The choice of director Casey Stangl to have the cast speak for the most part in refined British tones that are authentic and individual is well realized under the dialect coaching of Ms. Doukas. Stangl’s staging of the action includes choreographed interludes, mostly people bustling across the stage, that broaden the social scope of the play beyond the principal players. This is effected with multiple costume changes for the anonymous characters as well as for the actors who perform more than one role. The costumes, designed by Maggie Morgan, are splendid, and it must be noted that the costume crew, a veritable army, do yeoman work backstage with a seemingly never-ending series of quick changes. For the record, they are wardrobe supervisor Stephanie Ebeling; dresser Margaret Jordan; wig and makeup technician Gillian Woodson, wig assistant Karina Moreno, and the additional wig staff of Alyssa Goetz, Amber Hamilton, and Christine Stahl-Steinkamp; and the additional costume staff Shreya Carey, Christina Huh, Lalena Hutton, Ramzi Jneid, Megan Knowles, Jessica Larsen, Erik Lawrence, Kaler Navazo, Tessa Oberle, and Sarah Timm. My life’s partner was a union wardrobe supervisor and dresser on Broadway. She was mightily impressed knowing more than a little of what goes on backstage to make it all work.
The scenic design by François-Pierre Couture (lighting design by Anne E. McMills) features an open stage with a slanted, stepped platform, architectural walls, a door downstage, and entrances left and right. Set pieces glide smoothly in and out, with chairs and such sometimes rolled on and off by the cast. The excellent projections suggest all the many locales—exteriors, interiors, cities and open air. The original music and soundscape by Martín Carrillo reinforces the action, the historical time frame, and the diverse moods of the epic story.
Sense and Sensibility runs through September 29 at South Coast Repertory, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.