A staged version of Jane Austen’s novel “Sense and Sensibility” seems like a slam-dunk way to start the season at a mainstream regional theater.
To kick off its 55th year (and its 40th anniversary in its present digs), Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory chose a proven director, too: Casey Stangl, whose solid and satisfying production of “The Sisters Rosensweig” ended SCR’s 2017-18 season on a high note.
Unfortunately, this time Stangl’s work isn’t as assured and successful. There are nagging elements of not-quite-rightness to her staging that undermine its strengths. Partly, the problem lies in our preconceptions and expectations about Austen and her work. If you’re going to play around a bit with a classic source, mistakes become amplified by our familiarity with its most beloved incarnations.
To start with, François Pierre Couture’s scenic design lacks detail – not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of the story’s 1800 setting, a choice that makes it harder for us to be swept into the period. Couture over-uses David Murakami’s projections to provide the many changes of scene. Some of them are effective – a roiling thunderstorm, a busy London street – but others are literally changes of wallpaper to signify a shift of residential address. We need more.
Tellingly, one of the play’s most effective scenes involves two characters, lovelorn Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby, the caddish object of her affections, writing to each other. They’re placed at desks on different parts of the stage. She is downstage, reflecting the immediacy of her ardor; he is upstage on a higher level, indicating his reluctance to respond.
At other times, though, the commodious stage is annoyingly barren – not a stick of furniture, prop, or set piece to indicate where we are. It’s a huge, vacuous space that swallows up the action, especially in intimate scenes.
Martin Carrillo’s score also presents problems. Much of it is parked in the late 19th to early 20th century; I heard snatches of Debussy and other Impressionistic touches. Considered in conjunction with Maggie Morgan’s costumes, which seem more true to the era, it adds to the sense of uneasy historical ambiguity.
The production’s multiracial cast tackles Jessica Swale’s rather dense adaptation with mixed results. Rebecca Mozo provides the emotional peaks as Marianne, the impetuous Dashwood middle sister. Mozo knows that Marianne’s self-absorption has to be counterbalanced by an effortless charm that makes us adore her.
As her levelheaded older sister Elinor, Hilary Ward delivers a properly tempered performance, making her late-play confessional scene with Marianne powerful and moving. Her British accent, though, wavers in authenticity. Desiree Mee Jung plays the youngest Dashwood girl, Margaret, as a pre-pubescent sprite. She’s a bit too forcefully girlish at times, but Jung knows where the laugh lines are.
The majority of the comedy is delivered, confidently and expertly, by Abigail Marks as Mrs. Jennings, the jolly, meddlesome matchmaker who loves a good party and a juicy rumor.
Nike Doukas, as always, finds just the right tone as the Dashwood girls’ mother. She conveys a jumble of warring qualities: sadness, protectiveness, optimism, anxiety, and above all perseverance.
As Willoughby, Preston Butler III is less successful than Mozo at balancing pleasant and unpleasant traits – crucial for making this charming bounder believable. Josh Odsess-Rubin has more success with bumbling Edward Ferrars, a slightly less loathsome romantic interest than Willoughby, who can’t get Elinor out of his head. (Some might see a little too much of Hugh Grant’s stuttering Edward from Ang Lee’s 1995 film version.)
Dileep Rao brings quiet decency to the only unalloyed hero of the story, Colonel Brandon. And Matt Orduna calls to mind the phrase “the banality of evil” as John, the cold-hearted relative responsible for the Dashwoods’ impoverishment. Orduna portrays him as a passive prig who is easily led to self-serving decisions by his conniving wife, Fanny.
Stangl’s creation isn’t without merit. She’s a talented veteran director who knows how to shape scenes of conflict and allows her performers to subtly infer intent and character. My suspicion is that with this production, she made a few conceptual choices that took her down unnecessarily difficult paths. It’s always best not to get in the way of a good story – particularly one that everyone knows.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.