Silly Sensibility at American Players Theater

The Austen wave continues at APT — with an unexpected comedy.
Women in period costumes stand on a stage during a performance
Photo by Liz Lauren
"Does it start with F?" Sarah Day's Miss Jennings tries unsuccessfully to wheedle the same of Elinor's (Laura Rook) possible romantic suitor in APT's production of "Sense and Sensibility."

The novels of Jane Austen are certainly known for featuring dry wit and humor, but they’ve never been considered reliable sources of knee-slapping comedy. Don’t tell that to Jessica Swale, whose joke-heavy adaptation of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is currently in the capable hands of American Players Theatre. While Swale’s adaptation hits all the stops of Austen’s plot, it leans into its comic elements like Falstaff on a bender. At times, it feels like Sense, Sensibility and a Laugh Track. And APT’s cast has an absolute blast with it.

The Dashwoods have been struck with the kind of destiny-altering bad luck on which Austen’s stories typically center: When the patriarch of the fam dies at the beginning of the play, the widow and her three daughters get to watch their cowardly half- brother (Tim Gittings) and his snooty spouse (Tracy Michelle Arnold) inherit everything, booting them off, all but penniless, to the confines of a small cottage in (gasp!) Devonshire.

The only way out, of course, is for the two oldest sisters — sensible Elinor (Laura Rook, whose cool and stately reserve was made for Austen adaptations like this) and youthfully impulsive Mariane — to find husbands, pronto. Naturally, this proves far more difficult than it sounds. “All we’re at liberty to do is sit and wait,” bemoans Rook’s Elinor of the fate of young women in the 19th century. She’s certainly not wrong.

Devonshire may not have the deepest pool of eligible bachelors, but this version of it is rife with comical characters, beginning with Mrs. Jennings, the nosy but good-natured wacky neighbor. Sarah Day plays her with an almost savage, electric glee, all but pouncing on the Dashwood sisters for even the slightest nugget of romance and/or gossip and wielding a croquet mallet with manic energy. Day has made a career as a scene-stealer, and she’s given enough opportunities here to be convicted of grand larceny several times over. As her pal, Sir John Middleton, Brian Mani proves a droll straight man.

They’re not alone. As Margaret, the precocious youngest Dashmore daughter, Isabelle Bushue gets plenty of opportunities to wring laughs with her love of all things natural (stag beetles, anyone?) and a reliable tendency to say or ask the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. She’s delightfully energetic, and does a great job of playing down to her character’s age.

But even with all the one-liners flying around like the bugs Margaret is trying to catch, the story centers on the plight of the older sisters. While the stoic Elinor’s dreams of being saved by the perpetually tongue-tied Edward (Jamal James) seem destined to be dashed by distance and unexpected entanglements, Marianne’s busily chasing after the roguish Willoughby (Ty Fanning) and doing what she can to avoid the older (he’s in his 30s! OMG!) and seemingly sad-sackish Colonel Brandon (Marcus Truschinski).

The Saturday, July 9 performance featured a rarity at APT — not one, but two understudies called to emergency duty, including one in one of the play’s main roles. Subbing in for Samantha Newcomb as Marianne, Charence Higgins scarcely missed a beat, navigating her character’s headstrong nature and wild emotional swings. The cast called her out during the curtain call, which felt like a nice touch for what could be a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Props also go to Truschinski, who does a great job playing a role that, at least initially, goes against the type of A-list romantic roles he’s used to rocking. A sequence where Truschinski’s Brandon enters the room multiple times, only to discover that Willoughby has trumped whatever gift he’s intended for Marianne, is a hilarious example of economic story-telling. It also feels like a scene ripped from a classic TV sitcom.

Elsewhere, the play falls victim to the this-then-that pacing of Austen’s novel. (“We must call the doctor!” followed instantly by a scene of the doctor bursting into the room) Director Marti Lyons tries to manage the pace by segueing between these plot points with loud snaps, bursts of light and singular musical tones. And the strategy mostly works.

Yu Shibagaki’s set features a patterned back wall that’s sharply slanted in what could be a metaphor for the Dashwood’s fortunes sliding off the table, but that’s the only unusual touch. It’s also an echo of the production’s static sensibility. Part of that makes sense — most of the action here revolves around people having conversations in tight spaces — but it makes the proceedings feel trapped, much as the Dashwood sisters are.

Way back in 2015 — which now seems about a lifetime ago, and not just because the production was staged prior to the Hill Theatre’s makeover in 2017 — director Tyne Rafaeli’s production of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” proved to all of us that Austen’s drawing-room dramas could be a thing of fluid, swirling beauty on the stage. Lyons’ more traditional take doesn’t attempt anything nearly as grandiose but succeeds on its comic timing and cast performances.

Meanwhile, don’t expect the Austen wave to abate anytime soon. Further to the north, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater just premiered a production of Austen’s “Emma.” It won’t be at all surprising if she makes her way to Spring Green in the coming years.

“Sense and Sensibility” plays through Oct. 9 in the Hill Theatre.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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