If art conveys the human experience, then perhaps no artistic topic has inspired more intrigue and confusion than romance, courtship and marriage.
Woodford Theatre's current production, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, spotlights this timeless topic in a classic retelling of the plight of two sisters struggling to navigate the terrain of love and practicality in Regency Era England.
Cultural mores surrounding marriage continue to evolve, but during the early 1800s, most English women needed to marry for economic reasons. Since women of a certain class, and indeed most women of all classes, were expected to marry and have children and could acquire no income on their own (apart from inheriting it, under specific circumstances), choosing a suitable husband was one of the most important decisions of a woman's life.
This is Elinor and Marianne's quandary as Jon Jory's streamlined adaptation of the play opens. The two sisters' fates are turned upside down when their father suddenly dies and a son by his first marriage ousts them from their childhood home. The family's fortune depends on their marriages.
Directed by Patti Heying, the show is a genteel escape into one of Austen's most celebrated tales. Its success hinges on an ensemble of well cast actors who tap into the familiarity of the story while making distinct choices that make their characters their own.
For example, Robert Parks Johnson and Gina Scott-Lynaugh bring robust joviality to their roles as Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, the meddling-in-a-good way Mrs. Jennings. Neighbors of the relocated Dashwood family, who must adjust to life in a small cottage after living in a grand manor, Sir Middleton and Mrs. Jennings in particular play important roles in connecting the Dashwood sisters to potential suitors.
Speaking of suitors, Tanner Gray is charming and suspicious as Willoughby, who snares Marianne's heart with romantic flourishes that may very well be too good to be true. Tom Phillips brings a brooding dedication and refined maturity to his role as Colonel Brandon, who loves Marianne despite taking a backseat to Willoughby. Tim Hull's portrayal of the shy, emotionally reserved Edward Farrars is particularly impressive; it is very difficult to convey both extreme composure and extreme vulnerability at the same time, which Hull does with apparent ease.
The same could be said for Holly Brady as Elinor Dashwood. The level-headed sister who keeps her feelings under wraps, Brady's Elinor is nuanced and loves deeply, despite the cool demeanor that keeps her mother and sister grounded in reality. And Courtney Waltermire brings requisite fire and folly to her portrayal of Marianne Dashwood. Both she and Brady share a delightful sibling chemistry on stage.
Supporting characters like Jan Hooker's high-pitched, giggle-ridden love interest of Edward Farrars create some of the evening's most humorous moments. Even very marginal roles, like Sarah Hack and David Alan Clark, bring a bit of romantic mirth to their short moments on stage, exchanging furtive glances as they move set pieces around.
Mike Sanders' English garden-inspired setting, with a giant blooming rose in the center of the stage, sets the tone for romance, which is what the evening is all about.