Some Brit Lit purists may balk at Blue Ridge Community College Drama Department’s comic spinoff of Sense & Sensibility. But by this point, in the 200th anniversary year of the novelist’s death, zany Jane Austen interpretations are nothing new: her iconic characters and story lines have been transformed into everything from zombie parodies to paper-doll collections. The movie adaptations alone make some actors’ careers — proving that Austen’s work may be even more malleable and definitive than Shakespeare’s.
And although it’s definitely reframed with respect to modern, well, sensibilities, the plot of the April production plays largely by the book, according to Jennifer Treadway, director of the Drama Department. The action is thick with Austen’s twists and unforgettable supporting players, but the gist of it is: protagonist sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, following their father’s death, must navigate the social claustrophobia of early Regency-era England, where single ladies of good birth who experience reduced financial circumstances can rely only on marriage to maintain their status among the gentry.
The sisters are diametrically opposed: straight-laced Elinor, played by Hannah Lunsford and Eva Sainsbury — many roles in the student plays feature rotating actors — imparts her dry practicality to matters of love and money: hence the “sense.” Romantic, starry-eyed Marianne, played by local teenage author Faith Augustine, constitutes the sensibility.
“She’s a complex girl blossoming into a young woman,” Augustine says of her character. “She sits around waiting for love, contrary to how we actively pursue love in today’s time.” Yet the way Marianne initially scoffs at the courtly attentions of good-hearted Colonel Brandon, falling for handsome bad boy John Willoughby instead — and willfully refusing to see the cad in Willoughby until the crisis is irreversible — is the type of hard proof of human nature that makes Austen timeless.
By curtain call, love, however secured, has done its work. Marianne comes down to earth and sees the worth in the once-spurned Colonel, and Elinor bends a little and admits her feelings for shy suitor Edward Ferrars, played by Alex Stamps. The book’s catty ladies — sister-in-law Fanny Dashwood is, as always, a nasty delight — and Machiavellian womanizers are all accounted for in the adaptation, says Treadway.
But there’s a focus on humor in Kate Hamill’s script — an expansion of Austen’s own trademark sardonic wit and inherently hilarious bit players. In some spots, it becomes more rom-com than soap opera.
“[The play] highlights the silliness of societal expectations,” explains Treadway. “It makes a point that gender roles are unfair, unsustainable, and downright ridiculous.”
The absurd moments act as relief. In Sense & Sensibility, Reese Giles and fellow thespian Josh Davis-Peterson play the shady Willoughby — at first glance “positively dreamy.” The increasingly unsympathetic character is quite a change from Giles’ role last year as the title creature in the Drama Department’s rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus.
Even green-skinned, Giles stole hearts. But no amount of confident swagger or starched coattails — most of the costumes in Sense & Sensibility were repurposed from thrift-shop finds — will save Willoughby from being a jerk. In a dinner scene, for example, he insults the middle-aged Colonel Brandon, played by Chris Kingsley and John Draughon, in what comes out several decibels louder than the intended whisper. Awkward as it is, onlookers can’t help but laugh.
The local production features many such comic moments. A “chick fight” ends with a mouthful of teeth (or Chiclets) being spat onto the stage. Most inventively, a chorus of gossips carries the ridiculousness from scene to scene — at one point, they get down on all fours like a steed drawing a carriage to transport characters to London: two coconut halves slapped together make the clip-clop of horse hooves. In another manifestation, they portray Mrs. Jennings’ herd of canine companions. “The script calls for five gossips [who have] a few lines … we’ve just beefed this up,” explains Treadway. “Most of the slapstick physicality has been added by us — but is, I believe, keeping in spirit with the adaptation, and just highlights the farcical nature of the characters and situations invented by Austen.”
In fact, the gossips have a serious motive, too: they’re meant to comment on the story’s oppressive, patriarchal world, set in and around Sussex and London in the late 1790s. “Gossip was the primary art form back then, because all women could do was watch and be talked about,” Treadway says.
For Austen, and subsequently Marianne and Elinor, life is guided by a rigid social code. Accepting a man’s second bid for a waltz, wearing the wrong color, crossing one’s legs — a pose relegated only to prostitutes — all harbored potential social death.
But rules didn’t just constrain women. While there may have been 57 ways to hold a fan, there were just as many ways to come across as unchivalrous. Fumbling, well-meaning Edward Ferrars loves noble Elinor; however, years before, he foolishly engaged himself to sharp, shallow Lucy Steele, played by Hannah Black. He doesn’t care for Lucy, but he’s trying to do the right thing by not breaking his promise to her. Caught in a double bind between love and social standards, he’s too scared to make a move.
Despite his deep feelings, “he conveys himself to Elinor as he would an acquaintance. Not quite friendly even,” explains Stamps. (Near the story’s end, Edward is delivered from marriage to Lucy when she runs off with his wealthier brother Robert.)
Next to mastering the Standard British dialect, analyzing subtext might be the hardest part of putting on Sense & Sensibility. In last semester’s Frankenstein, a narrator helped clear up the symbolism, but here, actors must unpack Austen’s true intentions.
Reading between the lines means seeing universal themes two centuries after the 1811 publication. Naturally, there’s the idea that the bad guy, no matter how charismatic, never wins in the end — or really, that any too-good-to-be-true romance is unlikely to last. “Love is love, but you’ve still got to pay the electric bill,” says Treadway.
“I’m personally invested in how we treat one another,” she adds. “Sense & Sensibility is just one baby step to equality.”
Was Austen slyly precocious about women’s rights, her highly mannered novels anticipating first-wave feminism by nearly a century? That’s still being debated, even as her characters are endlessly recycled for the very newest of generations (a series of books for preschoolers uses the books’ plots to hilarious effect, as in the Pride & Prejudice counting primer: “Stroll through 1 English village to meet 2 rich gentlemen and discover what happens when the 5 Bennet sisters encounter 4 marriage proposals!”).
Certainly Lunsford, a mature 18 year old, views her character’s motivations in terms of gender roles. “Because of expectations, we see Elinor loveless and untrue to herself,” she says. “Expectations are limiting, no matter the time or place.”
Sense & Sensibility runs Thursday, April 6 through Sunday, April 9 at Blue Ridge Community College’s Patton Auditorium (180 West Campus Drive, Flat Rock). Performances are 7:30pm April 6-8, plus a matinee on Saturday at 2pm. Sunday’s show is a 2pm matinee (no evening show). Tickets are $5/students, faculty, and staff; $7/general. To reserve a ticket, contact Jennifer Treadway at 828-694-1849 or by e-mail at email@example.com.