On Stage: Sense and Sensibility

A satirical version of the Jane Austen classic comes to Folger Theatre. 

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Marianne (Erin Weaver) shares a private moment with her love, John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) in Sense & Sensibility (Photo by Teresa Wood)

There is no argument that a significant Jane Austen fan base exists for the 19th century novelist who exposed the inequities and foibles of her time in such works as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

“Sense and Sensibility” was Austen’s first work, published in 1811. It’s been on the big screen; Emma Thompson adopted the story for a film in 1995 and won an Oscar for her script. There was even a short-lived musical. That brings us to a satirical new version at Folger Theatre. The essential “Sense and Sensibility” is still there, but the staging is comical, sometimes even slapstick, and significantly different, and if you like different, it will work for you.

Austen related a grim story of Mrs. Dashwood, smartly performed by Lisa Birnbaum, who had been living in a grand house with her husband and three daughters when her husband died. Because women at that time could not inherit, she and her daughters were without means and forced to move with only limited resources into a small cottage. That also dimmed the marriage prospects for her two older daughters – Elinor, 19, and Marianne, 16.

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A spirited horse carriage ride depicted by the cast of Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Elinor is “Sense,” a serious, careful woman played with sympathetic understanding and intelligence by Maggie McDowell, while the impulsive, overly romantic Marianne is adroitly handled by the ever magical Erin Weaver, an actor who seems to be having as much fun acting as we have watching her.

Marianne is unwisely attracted to the handsome, glib John Willoughby, played sensitively by a controlled Jacob Fishel. He is a philanderer, attempting to take advantage of the naïve Marianne, as he has done with other young women, but he isn’t sinister — he’s more selfish and careless. He seems to know what he is and can’t help himself. But he has done dastardly things.

There is an opportunity for Marianne in that Colonel Brandon, a significantly wealthy but older man, is greatly interested in her. Marianne is appalled that a man so old – he’s 35 – could even be capable of a marriage with a woman nearly 20 years younger. His age seems amusing to the audience, but Marianne has a point – 35 was old in the early 19th century. James Patrick Nelson, who portrays Brandon, is impressive, but has been directed to be grave and stiff to the point of being a caricature.

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Mrs. Dashwood (Lisa Birnbaum, far left) and her daughters (Maggie McDowell, Nicole Kang) look on with great joy as the dashing John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) bids farewell to Marianne (Erin Weaver) in Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Director Eric Tucker has taken an entirely different approach to this often uncomfortable melodrama. Austen was exposing the absurdity of a time when women were forced by convention to desperately find a rich, established man. It was not a time for love and romance but a time of practical reality. Tucker’s satirical vision has unfortunately blunted some of those dark aspects.

Tucker is the director of Bedlam Theater in New York where, along with Kate Hamill’s adaptation, this energetic vision for “Sense and Sensibility” was listed in the top ten theater productions of 2014, and remains an off-Broadway hit. Tucker developed the scenic design with John McDermontt, and its almost absurd, but comical; the cast moves scenery to and fro on wheels and chairs pushed across the stage (also on wheels) to waiting actors. Choreographer Alexandra Beller amazingly controls the virtually non-stop, intricate movements.

The action is rapid and during scene changes the cast chatters, mimicking a kind of gossipy dance. There is also the now-familiar interaction with the Folger audience. This production works in making Jane Austen more accessible, and while the serious moments are jarring, moves to the happy ending. All’s well that ends well.

“Sense and Sensibility” runs through Nov. 13 at Folger Theatre. Tickets range from $30-$75 and can be purchased online

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