Dallas — Elinor (an elegant, restrained and posture-perfect Laura Gragtmans) has good sense and Marianne (a flushed, fluttering and emotive Morgan Laure) has a fine sensibility, but the delightful Dashwood sisters have not a drop of dowry to offer an eligible bachelor. As one giddy gossip maliciously asks, “With no money, how shall the girls ever catch a man?”
So begins Kate Hamill’s rousing adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed with youthful flair and a whirlwind pace by Sarah Rasmussen, heightened with an exquisite original score by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes that weaves together the flighty feelings and stalwart loyalties of the handsomely costumed and high-spirited characters all Jane-ites know by heart. Dallas Theater Center ends a voluptuously varied season with a classic lesson in the enduring power of civility, good manners and a loving family to nurture one through the complexities of finding true love and a decent estate at the same time.
There’s more than drawing room titters going on in this superb rendering of Austen’s insight into the plight of young women in 18th-century England, all dependent on the favor of a male relative to take them in if they don’t have money or beauty or something to exchange for an eligible bachelor. We all trade in something. Right? That’s why Hamill’s exuberant take on Austen’s clear-headed assessment of the marriage market still resonates. Today young women may have Internet dating services to help them hook up with Mr. Right, and social media to track his activities. In Austen’s world, the unattached have a hilariously resourceful yenta and a gossip network Twitter would kill for.
When the lights go up, gossiping neighbors in grackle-black gowns and suits swoop down the aisles and chatter loudly from the wings at the funeral of rich Mr. Dashwood, whose eldest son from his first marriage, John (a pompous Justin Lemieux), has inherited the family estate and all the money. That means his second wife (a stately Christie Vela, calmly sewing but ever alert to marriage ops), and their three daughters must depend on him for a living.
Forget that. John’s proudly pregnant wife Fanny (a sneering, controlling Vanessa DeSilvio, literally full of herself) is the mean and stingy sister-in-law of a poor relation’s nightmares. Witchy Fanny even smothers the shyly smoldering romance between Elinor and Edward (tall, bumbling and love struck Alex Organ), Fanny’s sweet-natured younger brother, held tightly in the financial grip of his social-climbing mother.
Winsome Marianne takes a walk in the woods, sprains her delicate ankle in a rainstorm and is brought home in the arms of the dashing Willoughby (a handsome, smarmy Daniel Duque-Estrada) who wins her heart quoting third-rate romantic poetry. Sighing and rhyming, Marianne wears her heart on her pretty sleeve, where any cad can grab it. She chides her sister for not being more forthcoming about her feelings for Edward, although Elinor does concede, “I think very highly of Edward.” Can love’s flame grow in this cool bosum? Jane knows it can. Be patient.
Fanny makes life impossible in their family home, and off go the Dashwood women to the country estate of Sir John Middleton (a gloriously guffawing Brandon Potter), a distant relative who installs them in a handy cottage. Happily, the move also provides the two marriageable Ms. Dashwoods with the acquaintance of Mrs. Jennings (comic jewel Julie Johnson, her wide-eyes aglow with the prospect of London trips and stately dances), a born marriage broker with finely honed instincts.
Swirling from manor to manor, strolling in the gardens, taking tea in the parlor or dancing a flirty minuet at a London ball, the Dashwood sisters, their suitors and their rivals step through time and space in Andre Boyce’s lovely, open set design. Built around a revolving stage with a circular screen projecting morning light, sudden storms, sunny gardens or distant buildings, everything appears through mobile architectural panels and windows. The music is gorgeous, filled with wooing winds and heartfelt strings. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes are scrumptious. She outfits her slender heroines in beautiful empire dresses in blues and creams and corals, accented with a maroon ribbon or sash. The men’s morning jackets and high boots are perfectly fitted and British sexy. Even Lucy (a hissingly snotty Allison Pistorius), the most ruthless husband-hunter on the manor circuit, looks pretty in a rustling dark blue gown.
Making a good marriage is never an easy matter, and it takes a lover’s vision to overcome rude relations, idle rumors, and lots of other bad stuff besetting our girls. But truth will out, sisterly support shall prevail and at least one gallant rich colonel (a virile and darkly handsome William DeMeritt) waits in the wings when a romantic beauty comes down with a broken heart.
Spread the word: gossips are everywhere. The classy cast and pitch perfect direction of Sense and Sensibility make this a must-see show for Austenites everywhere—and a surprise thrill for everybody else.