Northlight Theatre gives modern flair to ‘Sense & Sensibility’
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic / email@example.com March 20, 2011 7:46PM
‘SENSE & SENSIBILITY’
◆ Through April 17
◆ Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
◆ (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
In his program note for “Sense & Sensibility,” director John Jory’s emotionally engaging, ideally cast stage version of Jane Austen’s novel, he writes eloquently (and wisely) about the “instructions” he received from the writer whose lifespan (1775-1816) was relatively short, but whose legacy is enduring.
Channeling Austen, he hears her whisper this advice: “Remember how important manners were in holding our little society together. The emotion breaks through the manners, but the manners always reassert themselves. In all the novels, the women have to worry about money, and there are never enough possible partners. [And] in the end, only love is worth writing about, the rest is simply a matter of detail.”
Jory’s Northlight Theatre world premiere production beautifully heeds all these reminders. What he and his exceptional actors add to the mix is a freshness, speed and immediacy that, while always in sync with the humor, sentiments and manners of Austen’s late 18th century English country-and-city society, gives the storytelling a contemporary energy that is downright irresistible. There is plenty of style here but not a hint of affectation or archness. The production flows like an effortlessly danced gavotte, finding just the right balance between formality, playfulness and the real pain that invariably accompanies love and hope.
As is frequently the case in Austen novels, “Sense & Sensibility” homes in on a family that has lost its financial independence and property just as the daughters, who are of marriageable age, must find mates who will assure their futures.
Elinor Dashwood (Heidi Kettenring, a superb actress, whose musical theater work clearly gives her an impeccable sense of timing) and her younger sister, Marianne (the petite, fiery, English-bred Helen Sadler, who inhabits her character to perfection), have been left more or less homeless after their father dies. Their older brother John (deft work by Si Osborne), strongarmed by his shrewish wife (Franette Liebow is deliciously selfish and controlling), leaves his mother (Penny Slusher) and his sisters to more or less fend for themselves. And so they do, with a little help from relations.
Elinor, wise, discreet, forgiving and quietly passionate, falls for the shy but seemingly forthright Edward Ferrars (an ideally tuned Geoff Rice), who would prefer to be a pastor than a member of Parliament. Marianne, 17, is full of youthful impulsiveness and feverish passion — a wild, unapologetic romantic who quickly falls for Willoughby (the easily dashing Greg Matthew Anderson), an altogether charming cad, while shunning the more sober attentions of a slightly older man with a complicated past, Colonel Brandon (Jay Whittaker, an actor so good he is all but unrecognizable from play to play).
As Elinor so memorably explains it all when the brokenhearted Marianne is felled by a near-fatal fever: “She is the victim of expectations.” Like all the characters in Austen’s story, she also is the victim of circumstances.
There is excellent work by Wendy Robie (as an irrepressible matchmaker); Diane Mair (as a deperate young woman hellbent on finding a husband); V Craig Heidenreich (as a voluble country squire); Ginger Lee McDermett and Emily Tate. And Jory (the longtime former producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville) never lets the emotional tension drift while remaining true to Austen’s keen sense of tone and behavior.
Tom Burch’s airy design — a handsome doorway and a free-floating arc of plaster molding — is period perfect yet modern. Rachel Laritz’s exquisitely simple Regency-style costumes are ready for mass-marketing at Anthropology. And Joe Cerqua’s incidental music is lovely. The production lives up to its title in every way.