Review: Making stage sense of ‘Sense and Sensibility’

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 In the People's Light & Theatre production of 'Sense and Sensibility,' from left: Cassandra Bissell, Claire Inie-Richards and Susan McKey. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

In the People's Light & Theatre production of 'Sense and Sensibility,' from left: Cassandra Bissell, Claire Inie-Richards and Susan McKey. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

A fluid, catchy adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” calls for a fluid and catchy production – so it makes sense that People’s Light & Theatre Company has Joseph Hanreddy directing it. Hanreddy wrote it, along with co-adapter J. R. Sullivan, and the two theater artists nicely weave the intricacies of the plot into a play that pipes along.

It’s thoroughly enjoyable, even if it sometimes jarring, as though you’ve just witnessed two clips tightly stitched together but the middle portion’s been cut onto the floor. “What say you to a celebration in two weeks’ time?” Boom! It’s happening. When I saw “Sense and Sensibility” Sunday afternoon on its opening weekend, a character showed up immediately after the script telegraphed that he would be appearing sometime later, and the audience (including me) broke into laughter.

We may all be forgiven, but so may the production – whatever the adaptation might seem to skip lightly over, it makes up for by involving us wholly in the little triumphs and major tribulations of two seemingly lovelorn sisters (played with convincing clarity by Cassandra Bissell and Claire Inie-Richards). Despite the entreaties of men who may not be as honorable as they seem (Neil Brookshire and Sam Ashdown) – and one who is honorable but fails to light sparks (Grant Goodman) – these gals move forward, and fate eventually gives them the edge. In other words, this is every bit a Jane Austen romance.

It’s also a large undertaking, with many actors in People’s Light debuts alongside company veterans: 19 assured performers in all. Some are the servants – scene-changers who zip in and out in seconds to remove and replace furniture on Linda Buchanan’s good-looking all-purpose set of walls and windows with a geometrical floor design that makes the stage look even more expansive. These servants come at you like monsters who run onto video-game screens, then disappear; given that the servants are little more than stagehands in their roles, they’re wonderfully effective at instantly providing the downstairs element of this upstairs play.

But let’s not get too Downton Abbey-ish here. Although “Sense and Sensibility” involves gentry it’s also 205 years old, and the focus is not on change because there was none. It’s on dependency – particularly the way young people needed to protect their future well-beings by submitting to the wishes of the people whose money would eventually be theirs. (In other words, again, this is every bit a Jane Austen romance.)

And the script by Hanreddy and Sullivan rightly brigs this out – you feel for the way the characters are cornered by their complications, as Austen would have you do. Hanreddy and Sullivan, who individually direct around the country, are well-versed in Austen’s world. They adapted her “Pride and Prejudice” and when People’s Light staged it to much audience approval two years ago Sullivan saw the production and shared an early draft of “Sense and Sensibility.”

It premiered at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Hanreddy came to People’s Light in Malvern to re-stage it here. “You will make conquests enough, I dare say, one way or other,” says a kindly character to one of the sisters in “Sense and Sensibility.” As for People’s Light, they are conquering the novel in its entirety. “Sense and Sensibility” runs through March 20 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

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