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Sense and Sensibility — Hedgerow Theatre

 Hedgerow takes a breezy, shorthand approach to Jon Jory’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.”

     The popular Austen’s story is presented neatly and entertainingly in Jared Reed’s straightforward production. All is understood, and all is genteel without being stodgy, but except for the sequences that depict the budding romance between the charming Mr. Willoughby and the choosy Marianne, second eldest of three Dashwood daughters who have had their incomes and social circumstances reduced by the details of their father’s will, and the intelligent, expressive performance of Jennifer Summerfield as Elinor Dashwood, the eldest sister, Reed’s amiable staging doesn’t stir emotions or muster much dramatic intensity.  It amuses with brightness and captures both the gossipy and snobbish tone of Regency society, but it doesn’t convey passion or romance. Courtship remains courtly, with plain men making their plain intentions known plainly and somewhat formally. The Hedgerow “Sense and Sensibility” appeals to the part of you that wants to hear a good story. It has enough sparkle and dash to remain satisfyingly diverting, but it rarely touches your heart or makes you feel warm when love, genuine or desired, occurs.

      As love will. This is Jane Austen, the author who begins her most popular novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” by mocking that the arrival of a rich man in a neighborhood signals his intention to marry and who devotes many chapters in her books to showing how love unexpectedly develops and leads to vows of matrimony. The older Dashwood girls are bound to be fitted with husbands even as Austen poses the question of whether eligible men will be interested in women who cannot supply them with a fortune or family standing. “Sense and Sensibility” even has a character, the Dashwoods’ relation by marriage, Mrs. Jennings, declare she found husbands for her daughters and will do no less for Elinor and Marianne, and in record time.

       Austen doesn’t only plot romances among her characters. She thwarts them. Much of the fun of reading Austen is seeing the roadblocks she places in the way of true love and her knack for revealing that her characters may be more, or less, than is evident at first sight. All Austen characters have faults and vanities. It’s a matter of matching one imperfect being to another with which he or she will be most compatible.

       Jory is efficient in presenting these dodges and revelations. Even if his script eliminates characters or relegates them to being unseen references, e.g. the youngest Dashwood daughter, Margaret, or elides scenes to keep action flowing evenly, he tells Austen’s story well and completely enough to make it clear and engaging. Summerfield and the Hedgerow cast hold their audience’s interest.  Generally enjoyable performances are as efficient as  Jory’s writing and as admirably animated as Reed’s snappy pace. The only thing missing is a visible connection between characters who say they are in love. You see respect and regard, you witness sincerity and humility, but you are not shown any ardor or any palpable indication that the characters have found partners with whom they can be content, let alone happy, ever after. Mind and spirit override heart. Sometimes, I think cast members chose one adjective, e.g. dour or staid, or lively and giggly, and used them as cues to denote their characters without varying much from them. This does not spoil Reed’s production, but it keeps it from ending with that glow that comes when all is settled well, and love finally comes to be.

      “Sense and Sensibility” follows a typical Austen paradigm. Mrs. Henry Dashwood has been widowed. She and her  daughters enjoyed  a refined and relatively worry-free existence at Norland Park, the Dashwoods’s ancestral estate and the only home the three Dashwood daughters have known.

       Upon Henry Dashwood’s death, Norland Park becomes the property of his son from an earlier, unhappy marriage, John, who, although he has a comfortable home in London, decides to settle at Norland with his wife, Fanny.

        Henry Dashwood has asked John to be kind to his widow and daughters, to allow them to stay at Norland Park, and to augment the daughters’ annual income from the wealth Henry has bequeathed, some of which comes from John’s mother’s estate. John intends to do all of this, but Fanny is less inclined to share her home graciously or part with her wherewithal if such expenditure can be limited or, better, avoided. She establishes herself as the mistress of Norland Park and treats her husband’s stepmother and half-sisters as tenants she tolerates for the sake of charity. While Fanny will say and believe she is being cordial to Henry’s second family, she is really stingy and withholding. When John and Mrs. Dashwood have a conversation to attempt to come to equitable terms regarding Henry Dashwood’s will, Fanny interrupts or finishes John’s sentences, usually in a way that favors her purse or her position as the owner of Norland. Mrs. Dashwood, to whom Austen gives no first name, tires of Fanny’s meanness and greed and decides to abdictate Norland to her husband’s daughter-in-law and find new quarters. Her resolve is reinforced after Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, visits Norland, and Fanny accuses Elinor of flirting with him to get control of his fortune.

      The Dashwoods settle in another section of the country where Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, rents her Barton Cottage, a small home in a handsome setting. There, Marianne is wooed by Col. Brandon, a more mature man who is seeking a wife, but becomes attracted to Mr. Willoughby, a neighbor who lives with his rich aunt and who rescues Elinor and Marianne when the latter sprains her ankle during a country walk near Barton Cottage. Willoughby, as played by Brock D. Vickers, is quite the contrast to the other men in Reed’s production. He sweeps Marianne off her feet literally and figuratively.

      Two Ferrars brothers, Edward and Robert, figure into the picture. As often happens in Austen, the most lively of the men is revealed to be a scoundrel and unworthy of the love of the heroines. Mrs. Ferrars, mirroring the personality of her daughter, Fanny, threatens her sons with disinheritance if they marry against her wishes. Mr. Willoughby runs afoul of his aunt and loses his chance at independent wealth. An upstart named Lucy Steele shows up. Gossip abounds, and Mrs. Jenning continues to assure Mrs. Dashwood she will get Elinor and Marianne married within weeks.

      Jory and Hedgerow manage to include all of this  is Reed’s jaunty production, partly by giving Andrew Parcell and Joanna Volpe a half-dozen characters each to play, often pairing them as a couple.

       The plight of the elder Dashwood daughters are the focus of Jory’s play.

       Elinor, especially as played by Summerfield, personifies Austen’s title. She is a young woman who exudes sense and is cognizant of others’ sensibilities. Elinor applies reason to all situations, even those that threaten her happiness, such as her strong attraction to the seemingly unavailable Edward Ferrars. Marianne is flightier and more given to deciding in advance what she will accept or not in a suitor, should she even consider a suitor. Elinor is clear-headed, even if she is hurt by what she knows, while Marianne is a bit of a romantic who would be thrilled if someone came out of nowhere to satisfy her need to have a man who amuses her.

       She thinks she found that man in Mr. Willoughby, but that gentleman might have plans that do not include or even  consider Marianne.

         Reed’s production defines Elinor and Marianne’s personalities well and lets the audience make decisions about them and their individual merits rather than pronouncing, as Austen does, whether Elinor or Marianne has the more enlightened point of view. That, to Reed’s credit, will come clear in time.

         Jennifer Summerfield stands out among Reed’s cast because of her ability to remain within a classic style of acting that pervades Hedgerow’s “Sense” while conveying a woman, as opposed to a character, who is trying to sort out her life and the various events that affect it.

        From the first scenes, Summerfield establishes a core of reality for Elinor. Her posture shows attentiveness. She looks quizzical when her sister or sister-in-law say anything Elinor thinks is inane, naïve, or self-serving. Her line readings are direct yet can convey irony. Summerfield’s Elinor is the most complete being on the Hedgerow stage because the actress fills in the character’s edges and goes outside the lines to portray an individual living her life rather than a character type fulfilling the requirements of a story.

      With the turn of her head or the flash of an eye, Summerfield tells you everything Elinor thinks or feels. Her reactions are naturalistic. Even when Elinor is disappointed or confused, Summerfield goes beyond the superficial circumstance of the moment to show a woman who is assessing how this new event affects her entire being and the people around her.

        Stacy Skinner, as Mrs. Dashwood, also goes beyond her lines and reactions to create a complete woman who copes as best she can with changes in her life and the need to deal with the hopes, heartbreaks, and everyday life of her daughters. Although Austen describes Marianne as being the sister who takes most after her mother, at the Hedgerow, it’s Elinor who is more in league with Mrs. Dashwood, and the production benefits from the authority and authenticity Summerfield and Skinner give their roles.

       Liam Castellan is a staunch Colonel Brandon. From his first appearance, Castellan shows Brandon to be a quiet but sincere man who has seen his share of tribulations on the battlefield and in life and is ready to marry and settle down with a sensible woman who could share his comfortable, if unexciting, existence.

      Castellan catches the maturity and civility of Brandon. The probity and straightforward he gives the character earns immediate respect and regard. You can see how Elinor would enjoy conversation with the man.

      But Brandon is not interested in Elinor, with whom he has a kindred temperament. He is taken with Marianne, who is more concerned about the fabric of the colonel’s waistcoat that anything deep or real about his life or personality.

      Given the lively, romantic air with which Nell Bang-Jensen plays Marianne and the dourness with which Castellan plays Brandon, it is difficult to see them as a match, in spite of Jory’s script or Austen’s text. Castellan shows Brandon as a man of purpose and responsibility but gives him no trait that indicates lightness, charm, or joy in life. Not once do we see Brandon relaxed. Even his talks with Elinor tend, at times counter to their content, to be formal and distant. Brandon does not seem to be a man of passion or of enough ease to attract any woman, let alone Marianne.

       Something beyond military stiffness and gentleman’s honor is needed from Castellan. He doesn’t give the impression there’s a romantic or sentimental bone in Brandon’s body. Even a loving and tender act of his comes across as matter of fulfilling his duty rather than as a labor of affection.

      Steve Carpenter’s portrayal of Edward Ferrars has the same fault. With the exception of a strong scene in which Edward is standing his ground against his mother, played by a formidable, unyielding Joanna Volpe, Carpenter gives the character no life or charm that would earn him the esteem of several women, Elinor among them.

      Edward Ferrars is the Darcy of “Sense of Sensibility.” He is the man of great strength, great character, and great appeal who is superior to all others because, once one knows him, one must prefer him to all other young men in literature. Like Darcy, he is a man without airs, one who is proud of who he is and wants to be taken for whom he is, without pomp or embellishment

      Carpenter plays him as being meek and diffident. “No airs” seems to translate to no personality. With hair combed straight from the crown of his head to the front, Carpenter’s Ferrars looks unusual, as if something is awry with his grooming. His appearance belies the effect he has on young ladies, three of which, including Elinor, would be happy to be his bride.

       Carpenter gives Edward a tendency to look down and speak softly, as if he is afraid of life or ashamed of something within himself.

      He contrasts his sister, Fanny, with his perfect manners and regard to other people’s presence, but he is not the man one would pick from a crowd and say. “This one is the nonpareil.” Carpenter gives Edward no substance, no bearing to make him stand out, even against his will to be noticed.

       Elinor is a woman who would look beyond hairstyles or shyness to see the full character of a man. Carpenter’s Ferrars doesn’t offer much for a woman to find no matter how deeply she may look through him. Though more than one woman in “Sense and Sensibility” claims Edward for her own, the Edward who appears at the Hedgerow doesn’t seem worthy of any of their attentions, not even silly Lucy Steele’s. He has no élan, no dash, no touch of Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, or even Hugh Grant. He registers as being sullen and unpleasant. He seems a man who, in spite of sparring with his mother, has been beaten down and cannot express his true ideas or feelings. We need to see more breeding and more sparks of personality to believe that any woman, even the perspicacious Elinor, would desire this man’s company let alone his hand in marriage.

       Nell Bangs-Jensen captures the capriciousness of Marianne. She also conveys the change in Marianne that would allow her to reassess Brandon and consider him as a suitor and/or husband.

        As Mr. Willoughby. Brock D. Vickers displays all of the charm and esprit Castellan’s Brandon and Carpenter’s Edward lack.

        Austen always includes one male character who is immediately attractive and wins the attention and the approval of all women who meet him. Willoughby is the Wickham of “Sense of Sensibility,” the man whose own needs supersede all else, and who will do anything to attain a standing that may elude him, even if it means breaking a heart he’d rather preserve intact and enjoy as his own.

     Vickers, from the moment he rushes on stage to help Marianne, like Dudley Do-Right coming to the aid of his Nell, shows Willoughby to be man of spunk. Not only is he a quick thinker who knows exactly what to do for Marianne, unable to walk because she sprained her ankle, but he is competent and thoughtful. He has no weird hairdo or offensive flannel vest, and he exudes the romance Hedgerow’s “Sense and Sensibility” needs.

      Reed’s production is always lively and watchable, but when Vickers’s Willoughby and Bang-Jensen’s Marianne are always in each other’s company, the air in the Hedgerow takes on an atmosphere of hope, and romance seems possible.

      Whether one is familiar with the Austen novel or not, the scenes between Willoughby and Marianne cause tension. They are full of possibility. If you know the outcome, the credibility of Willoughby-Marianne romance just make Jory’s play tighter and more interesting. If you don’t know the outcome, real suspense is created. You begin to root for what you hope will inevitably happen. At Hedgerow, this is the one sequence that has some friction, some electricity to it.

      Reed’s production is good, but the Willoughby-Marianne portion, while it lasts, brings it to an elevated level.

      Similar to Vickers’s Willoughby, Andrew Parcell’s  Robert Ferrars is open and frank and seems to be more proper a suitor for the Dashwood sisters than his brother, Edward, or Col.Brandon.

       Robert’s charm covers his flaws, and you learn things about Robert that are not attractive, but Parcell, in his encounter with Summerfield’s Elinor, seems every bit a gentleman who will entertain and be good company for a woman. Although Robert is insincere, Parcell plays him as if he was all he seemed. Carpenter has to incorporate some of Parcell’s brand of presentation into his performance.

       Parcells is also quite good as John Dashwood, a man torn between the promise he made to his father and the fear he has for his wife.

        Some acting may be mannered. Romance among the young lovers in absent except in the sequence where a lasting relationship is not in the cards. Jared Reed’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” for Hedgerow fulfills all basic requirements. It tells a great story, crafted by one of the most lauded writers, Austen, and edited to bite-size clarity by Jon Jory, is sunny, well=paced way. My cavils aside, Hedgerow’s “Sense and Sensibility” provides a good time.

       “Sense and Sensibility” runs through Sunday, June 1 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa.(near Media). Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 7 and 28. These include a complimentary tea. Tickets range from $34 to $29 with various discounts and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by going online to www.hedgerowtheatre.org

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