Must wealth always be mentioned?" eighteen-year-old Marianne Dashwood irritatedly asks her widowed mother, who has just singled out the financial attributes of an eligible bachelor. When Jane Austen lived, wives and daughters were by law excluded from the lines of inheritance, so alas, the answer to Marianne's question was of necessity a resolute yes. Thus it is that many of Austen's six novels — and especially Sense and Sensibility, which is currently being dramatized at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis — tell tales of love circumscribed by money.
At the Rep, Austen's English Regency era is suggested by the simplest means. The sheer cleanliness of Tom Burch's ethereal scenic design — mostly open space, broken up by fragments of architecture — suggests that we in the audience are going to participate in the evening's action: Our imaginations are going to be put to the test. Circles everywhere are warm and inviting. On the rear wall, a huge orb will serve as sun and moon alike. Sometimes this orb is lit with such milky warmth as to suggest that the moon is not made of cheese at all — it's actually a marshmallow. Welcome to the world of Jane Austen.
Five years ago the Rep produced a musical version of Austen's 1816 novel Emma. In that staging, little was left to the imagination. Scenery was piled high upon more scenery. The self-conscious staging was all about contrived artifice. Bow and curtsy, curtsy and bow. But in Sense and Sensibility, which has been adapted and directed by Jon Jory, the past is present. The two Dashwood sisters feel as contemporary as Monica and Rachel. Nineteen-year-old Elinor (Nancy Lemenager) personifies sense (as in intelligence, logic, restraint), while the more impetuous Marianne (Amelia McClain) is defined by her self-centered sensibilities. She cries, faints, throws tantrums.
While the yearnings and heartbreaks that motivated Elinor and Marianne 200 years ago remain immediate, the use of language has changed radically since Austen's time. Her novels are constructs of the most refreshing turns of phrase. In describing a rainstorm, "suddenly the clouds united over their heads." Marianne's gentle suitor Colonel Brandon "was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty." Some of the stage dialogue at the Rep is undiluted Austen, straight from the novel, some is Austen-rephrased and some is Jory's faux-Austen. Without knowing (or caring) who wrote what, lines like "I no longer seek torrential feelings" and "It is very difficult to discover an engagement at 50 yards" caress the ears. The two charming leading women receive strong support from a seventeen-actor ensemble (many of whom have appeared in previous stagings of Jory's script) that moves the play forward with drill-like precision. The scenes veritably fly by. At times the production feels like a musical minus the songs.
But despite its many attractions, eventually Sense and Sensibility falls prey to the same trap that ensnared Emma five years ago. Austen's novels are deceptions. Their seemingly straightforward domestic story lines are layered with so much incident that the actors are mostly limited to conveying exposition, leaving precious little time to develop character. In distilling an entire Austen novel into two-plus hours, the evening becomes a checklist of plot points to be gotten through as quickly as possible so that the play can move on to the next dramatized event.
This problem does not hamper Act One, but Act Two is so insistent on plowing ahead, and emotions become so detached, it's almost as if Jory has sought to reimagine Austen through the prism of Bertolt Brecht's theater of alienation. Surely Marianne's brush with death requires more stage time than it receives here. The sequence also would benefit from evocative lighting that might help to affect our emotions. Instead the scene is rushed through. Actors are not allowed to act; audiences are not encouraged to feel.
By evening's end the early promise has given way to detachment. There is still much to enjoy here. But a production that might have been uniquely engaging is instead merely felicitous.