Some would argue that Jane Austen is quite witty – funny even, drawing readers into the slightly nuanced world of her characters as they navigate the perils of shifting social status, always taking a painfully long time to declare one’s feelings to the object of their desire. Others may not appreciate the subtleties of Austen’s dry humor, or have not yet had the chance to experience it. This fall, Folger Theatre is offering Austen addicts and newbies alike the opportunity to delve into the lives of the Dashwood family in Sense & Sensibility, playing through November 6.
Folger’s production of one of Austen’s most famous stories is true to her novel, while also invoking the cleverness and charm of the 1995 film (which you should absolutely see if you’re a fan of Alan Rickman or Kate Winslet, or if you just want to see Hugh Grant in perhaps his doofiest moments onscreen). Moreover, the play adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker is an energetic romp from start to finish, packed with physical comedy, constantly changing roles and fluid stage direction that keeps the audience on their toes.
For those unfamiliar, the story follows the struggles of the elder Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, after their father passes away and their family is forced to move to a cottage in the country. The reserved Elinor, played by graceful Brooklyn-based actress Maggie McDowell, pines for the endearingly awkward Edward Ferrars, played by area actor Jamie Smithson. Meanwhile, headstrong and passionate Marianne (Erin Weaver) is caught in a love triangle between Willoughby (1811’s equivalent of a heartthrob played by Jacob Fishel) and the much older, more experienced Colonel Brandon (played by James Patrick Nelson).
Tucker’s production opens with the actors interacting with the audience, then suddenly breaking into contemporary dance with some kind of electronica playing in the background. The cast switches gears completely in a matter of seconds when 19th-century music begins to play and a formal dance from the time period ensues. Nearly half the cast picks up other roles throughout the play, sometimes in the same scene, resulting in hilarity when several actors play horses – one was even pet by an audience member – and a rather ditsy woman sporting a tiara. Some of the best role-changing moments occur when multiple actors (Lisa Birnbaum and Kathryn Tkel in particular) play two characters simultaneously, pushed across the room on rolling chairs to immediately transform into the other character conversing with the first.
It was immediately apparent to this reviewer that the cast was having an enormous amount of fun onstage, exuding a level of energy and excitement that was infectious to the audience, especially in such an intimate space as the Folger. And though the comedic timing was impeccable and the wit turned up to full throttle, the more serious and heartfelt moments of the play remained intact, with beautiful performances from the actors – McDowell, Smithson, Nelson and Weaver in particular. The raw emotion conveyed by each actor was palpable, striking a chord with anyone in the audience who has been on the receiving end of heartbreak or even worse, the purgatory we wait in when the object of our affection hasn’t made up their mind or declared their intentions.
When speaking with McDowell about the quiet composure that Elinor maintains until the final moments of the play, the actress says her character is the kind of woman who cares so much about everyone else that she is willing to put her own feelings last. And because McDowell is part of an ensemble cast, she says it’s easy for her to translate wanting to do right by her fellow actors to taking care of her family and the people she loves in the play.
“Wanting to do a good job as an actor and a castmate easily connects me to the weight of responsibility that I think Elinor feels sometimes,” she says.
Smithson shares McDowell’s view of the cast as an onstage family, and says it’s easy to fall in love with the actress every night because “she’s such a beautiful spirit and beautiful human being.” As for channeling his inner Edward, it’s a no-brainer.
“That awkward loser is me,” he says with charming self-deprecation. “At my prom, I think I was sitting by myself in the limo.”
And it’s that element of humanity that Smithson says is the reason why theatergoers need to see this production.
“They’ll see themselves onstage,” he says. “They’ll see their own relationships. I think the magic of the theater is brought to life with this piece. With my whole being, I say come to this show.”
Plus, he says dudes will score major points with their ladies for seeing Sense & Sensibility on date night.
“I can guarantee it.”
Whether you’re looking for an excellent date night option or just an authentic theatergoing experience, don’t miss the opportunity to see this refreshingly engaging play at Folger. Sense & Sensibility runs through November 6, and tickets are $30-$75. Check Folger’s website for 30 and under discounts.
Photo: Teresa Wood