The program notes speak of social pressures — gossip, finances and class strata. All of that certainly informs Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” in a new stage adaptation by playwright Kate Hamill.
Yet, as the standing ovation rang through the Guthrie Theater after Friday night’s season-opening performance, thematic issues seemed less important.
The genuine and sincere applause for director Sarah Rasmussen’s production was a response to individual nobility — to the willingness of people in difficult straits who retain their sense of decency and their sensibility of compassion.
Rasmussen’s staging — not without its flaws — is utterly charming and the portrait of Elinor Dashwood by actor Jolly Abraham stands as an unceasing beacon of integrity. Abraham makes her Guthrie debut as the eldest sister of a damaged family. In her confident, unshowy performance, Elinor is the rock, the finest soul of the bunch — a woman whose beauty radiates from her heart. Does it sound as if I fell in love with her? How could you not? Under Rasmussen’s direction, Abraham earns our affection by dominating the stage with quiet grace.
Of course, there are others in Austen’s romantic drama. Alejandra Escalante is the spunkier younger sister, Marianne, who allows emotions to get the best of her and pays a price. Remy Auberjonois fills out the contours of Col. Brandon, a man seemingly past his prime but filled with duty, honor and a righteous dedication to compassion toward the Dashwoods, Marianne in particular.
John Catron portrays Edward Ferrars, the putative object of Elinor’s affections. Ferrars is seized by self-doubt, frustrated in his ability to express himself and suffocated by his own secrets.
Hamill’s adaptation employs a chorus of gossips who relate the sad plight of Elinor, Marianne, their mother and teenage sister. They are reduced to mean circumstances by their father’s death.
The pressure to marry well hangs in the balance as both Elinor and Marianne take on suitors. Through advances, retreats, twists, deceptions both intended and not (that’s what makes a story, right?), each sister embraces the rules of her heart and not those imposed by society.
Rasmussen’s production spreads out on an open stage design (by Junghyun Georgia Lee) reminiscent of the Guthrie’s last foray into Austen, 2013’s “Pride and Prejudice.” A few windows and pillars indicate the many locations, and the turntable stage becomes a Lazy Susan to give us a sense of motion and space. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes distinguish color and the black-clad denizens of English society. Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes contribute a cinematic musical score that can sweep through set changes (à la “Downton Abbey”) or accent poignant moments.
Rasmussen serves those moments generally with exquisite observation and a sense of her actors’ self-assurance. When Catron’s disturbed Edward leaves Elinor abruptly — he with a secret in his heart and she with a hole in hers — the effect of light, sound and Abraham’s reaction is devastating. Auberjonois delivers Brandon’s tragic back story with economy and full investment in the words that Hamill has provided.
Actor Torsten Johnson finds the anguish and flippancy of John Willoughby — the complex would-be lover of Marianne. Sally Wingert makes something of the daffy beldam Mrs. Jennings, and Emily Gunyou Halaas has her moment as Lucy Steele, a slightly conniving money grabber.
It all leads to a most satisfying evening of theater. Hamill’s script reveals the perilous social landscape of Austen’s England and Rasmussen’s instincts take us to the personal core of characters who are worth considering, admiring and emulating once again.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic.