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Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility follows Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two sisters who, along with their mother and younger sister, have been forced out of their dearly departed father’s estate by their elder half-brother and his wife. The family moves to a small cottage on the property of a distant relative and builds a new life on their modest income, full of romantic trials and tribulations. Now, the story is onstage at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in an adaptation by Jessica Swale.
Elinor Dashwood is the model of a good woman of her time (and ours?): though she feels very deeply, she represses her emotions on the outside. She falls in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars, but presents as relatively boring by today’s standards due to her outward calm. As Elinor, Sarah Gliko dances the difficult line between reserve and warmth with ease. Meanwhile, Arrianna Daniels as the brash, impulsive, and sometimes-selfish Marianne makes her recognizable by today’s standards as the teenager that she is without grating audience nerves, defying societal norms and living her feelings a little too out loud for Elinor’s liking.
Meeting modern sensibilities
Swale’s adaptation makes changes for a more modern audience, a new format, and time constraints. Following Elinor more closely than Marianne, Sense and Sensibility is often told through subtleties and silent longing, and the novel’s quiet and constraint often clash with the nature of onstage performance. Live theater (in which body language, expressions, and makeup and costuming details must reach to the back of the house) needs to be bigger, brighter, and bolder, in both a literal and a textual sense, than TV or film.
In that way, this adaptation, directed by Jessica Bedford, is ripe for analysis. Akeem Davis steals every scene he’s in as Edward Ferrars—though he does not embody the shy, awkward, and distinctively bland character in the original. Here, Davis’s warm, bold, and charming characterization is better fitted to the theatrical format and allows the audience to immediately understand Elinor’s attraction.
Unfortunately, Lucy Steele’s (Megan Castellane) role is minimized for the sake of brevity, to the point of confusion: without the scene where she discovers Elinor’s interest in Edward, the underhanded and manipulative intent as she confesses to Elinor that she is secretly engaged to Edward is lost, and her actions can be read as tragically ignorant. And given these changes, it’s a wonder to me that this adaptation doesn’t go one further and alter the characters’ ages. The most troubling original detail to my modern-day sensibilities is that the 35-year-old Colonel Brandon (Gregory Isaac) is pursuing the 16-year-old Marianne with the encouragement of her mother and elder sister. This age gap could use an update for our times.
A worthy trip
Overall, I found this production engaging, well-acted, and an absolute joy to watch. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in my opinion; the audience around me laughed heartily when Edward cracked a joke and oohed sympathetically when the besotted Brandon gave Marianne a bouquet of flowers and stack of books after she twists her ankle—a smaller bouquet, and books deemed less enticing, than those brought by the charming Mr. Willoughby (John Austin) moments before.
Despite the distance from Philadelphia (a 90-minute drive on a Thursday evening), this is truly a must-see for both die-hard Austen fans and those unfamiliar with this particular work, as prior knowledge is not required. Though initially intimidated by the nearly three-hour runtime, I later felt the subject matter deserved even more time to thoroughly explore the complexities of my third-favorite Austen novel (yes, I rank them). This performance is a fun way to spend an evening and will leave Austenites with plenty to discuss about the page-to-stage journey.
Above: Elinor (Sarah Gliko) and Marianne (Arrianna Daniels) share a sisterly moment in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Sense and Sensibility.’(Photo courtesy of PSF.)
What, When, Where
Sense and Sensibility. By Jane Austen, adapted by Jessica Swale; directed by Jessica Bedford. $25-$68. Through August 5, 2023, at the Professional Theatre at DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave, Center Valley. (610) 282- WILL or pashakespeare.org.
The theater offers wheelchair seating, companion seating, and space for a service animal on request. Assisted-listening headsets and large-print programs are available at Will Call during every performance.
There will be an audio-described and open-captioned performance of Sense and Sensibility at 7:30pm on Wednesday, August 2. Additional accessibility information for all performances can be found on the website.
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