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REVIEW: Sweet Sense and Sensibility (Guthrie Theater)

Alejandra Escalante (Marianne Dashwood), Suzanne Warmanen (Mrs. Dashwood), John Catron (Edward Ferrars) and Jolly Abraham (Elinor Dashwood) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Sense and Sensibility.

The Guthrie Theater opens its 2016-2017 season with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In this new adaptation by playwright Kate Hamill, Sara Rasmussen (artistic director for the Jungle Theater) directs Jane Austen’s work with a heavy emphasis on the female characters. The pace of the play starts slow, like the novel, but techniques such as a chorus of gossips help to pick up the pace for a very pleasant second half.

Alejandra Escalante (Marianne Dashwood) and Jolly Abraham (Elinor Dashwood) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Dan Norman.
Sisters Marianne Dashwood (Alejandra Escalante) and Elinor Dashwood (Jolly Abraham). Photo by Dan Norman.

Like Austen’s more famous Pride and Prejudice, the impetus for the Sense and Sensibility‘s plot was England’s unfair primogeniture’s law, which required property be bequeathed only to the nearest male heir of the deceased. When sisters Elinor Dashwood (Jolly Abraham) and Marianne Dashwood (Alejandra Escalante) unexpectedly lose their father, their half-brother inherits the bulk of their father’s estate and ignores his deathbed promise to provide for his father’s second family. With considerably reduced circumstances, the sisters – along with their widowed mother and a much younger sister – move from their father’s fine home to a small cottage on the estate of a cousin, Sir John Middleton (Robert Dorfman). There they are warmly welcomed by Middleton and his nosy, but good-hearted mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Sally Wingert).

Middleton introduces the family to his good friend Colonel Brandon (Remy Auberjonois – Mr. Albin in Weeds) an older gentleman who is immediately smitten with Marianne but Marianne sees him as too stuffy and old. Marianne soon becomes smitten herself by a young man who is supposed to inherit a large fortune named John Willoughby (Torsten Johnson). Meanwhile Elinor, before moving from her father’s home, develops an emotional bond with Edward Ferras, a socially awkward young man who is also destined to inherit a fortune. The play follows these different romances until the play’s ultimate happy endings.

This show is marked by the extremely strong performances of its lead female characters. Jolly Abraham stands out as the mature, caring, and stoic Elinor, who looks to everyone’s good points and can forgive those who cause pain to her or her sister. Alejandra Escalante has a youthful exuberance as the less mature and more passionate Marianne, who ultimately grows up and finds a mature love. Emily Gunyou Halass is the fortune-hunting Lucy, who has trapped Ferras into a loveless commitment of marriage; much to Elinor’s chagrin. She plays the role of Lucy with such charm that it is hard to see her as the schemer who eventually drops the honorable Ferras when he loses his fortune.

The play’ has a chorus named “Gossip” that effectively moves in between scenes to give background on what society is saying about the sister’s plights, giving needed movement to the action. The one drawback is the limited time the play gives to the start of Elinor’s and Ferras’ attachment. (The book provides much more of an insight into Ferras attributes to explain why Elinor loves him and there is simply not enough of that in the play.)

Alejandra Escalante (Marianne Dashwood), Jolly Abraham (Elinor Dashwood) and Suzanne Warmanen (Mrs. Dashwood). Photo by Dan Norman.
Alejandra Escalante (Marianne Dashwood), Jolly Abraham (Elinor Dashwood) and Suzanne Warmanen (Mrs. Dashwood). Photo by Dan Norman.
Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set design of standing pillars effectively conveys the play’s different locations and is reminiscent of the set for the Guthrie’s earlier production of Pride and Prejudice. One clever device employed by Lee is a revolving floor used for great humor, especially in the dining scenes. The period detail and style in Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes was outstanding. Indeed, Elinor’s outercoat was so stylish that it made me envious. Charlie Morrison’s lighting design was very complimentary to the set and was especially effective in conveying the emotion of the scene in which Marianne’s former suitor admits his sins and sorrow to Elinor.

The performances of the two Dashwood sisters alone makes this production worth attending. Combined with all of the other elements, it makes for a very pleasant evening at the theatre.

Sense and Sensibility plays at the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis through October 29.



Bev Wolfe