Face masks are now optional at the Alley Theater and several other theaters across the city. Many customers may want to wear them for the foreseeable future for safety and health reasons, but I can attest to the liberation one feels without them.
As long as we unmask, who better than Jane Austen to do it. She was a master at it. By poking convention and using a light touch, she discovered the hypocrisy beneath the smug attitude of her day and laid it bare. With wit and elegance, its plots fly high, its characters real and true.
The Alley Theater production of Jane Austen Sense and sensitivity, lovingly adapted by Kate Hamill, is a delight in every way. All Janeites, these Friends of Jane, will be intoxicating with excitement. This show is catnip. He is also catnip for all theater lovers, with his intelligence, wit and considerable charm in the direction and overall production. It’s elegant and well-crafted, much like the needlepoint samplers all the women of Dashwood embroider when they’re not playing the pianoforte or circumventing Regency England’s restrictive sexual mores and its legal disregard for the female species.
Miss Austen, who never married, was perhaps England’s first feminist writer. She was certainly his first distaff social critic, whose dry irony and sharp social observations altered the male ego and gave him his first punch in the arm. His novels, all published anonymously or under the title “By a Lady,” showed manly kindness how powerful and knowledgeable a woman’s point of view could be.
Austen was ahead of his time. Her six novels, now considered classics, enjoyed some success during her lifetime, but after her death in 1817 her insightful dissection of everyday life was finally viewed with the esteem she still possesses. In fact, Austen’s fame and respect grow stronger every decade, speak to us in new ways, are richer than ever. Pride and Prejudice is his masterpiece, but others argue for Northanger Abbey, Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and particularly Sense and sensitivity. She’s up there with Dickens.
Sense and sensitivity, his first novel (1811), is the beginning of all things Austen. She uses humor as an arrow to pierce male vanity and female “foolishness”. What better way, she argues, to face the world she has known. She fully understood that a smart young woman without an inheritance didn’t stand a chance. Even a strong independent like Austen couldn’t make a living as a writer – that was unthinkable in Regency England. If a father or brother or other male relative could not provide, there had to be a husband who could.
That’s the dilemma the Dashwood family finds when Dad suddenly dies. His property must go to a male heir, who happens to be the son of Dad’s deceased first wife. Greedy and pushed by his upstart wife Fanny, the half-brother evicts the family from their house and leaves Mum and her three daughters without a dowry and therefore without future prospects. In this society, a woman without resources is an invisible woman. This is classic Austen territory. (If you know the Main Street Theater Christmas productions of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett and The Wickhamstwo clever suites of Pride and Prejudiceyou know the problems that poor girls face and overcome.)
Playwright Hamill compacts the tale to introduce two of the Dashwood sisters, the sensitive Elinor (the multifaceted Elizabeth Bunch) and the passionate Marianne (the fiery Melissa Pritchett). Using many short scenes, Hamill distills romance to showcase the ancient period with contemporary brilliance, never losing the fragrant language or convoluted social norms whose etiquette was as strict as Empire dresses were loose.
Dandies and cowards, battle axes and Sloane Rangers, misplaced or unrequited lovers all play a role in this chess game of the heart. Looks, a bow, a light kiss on the hand can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or exaggerated. Usually all of the above. The search for love leads the sisters to an uncharted land. Everything is ripe for soft humor, as it was for Austen, and the production of The Alley, directed with deft assurance by Adriana Baer, is full of it.
With the exception of the two sisters, the other nine actors play multiple roles of endless variety. You never know who will come in as a butler, maid, society matron, or stagehand. Todd Waite, as pretentious half-brother John, suddenly appears as the corseted, silk-encrusted Lady Middleton. Watch as she descends Michael Locher’s spiral staircase, glass in hand, other hand just outstretched, to deliver her riposte to the punchline and then ceremoniously exit through the topiary, hand still cocked, as the scene opposite continues. This is one of the greatest comedic in/outs I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so perfectly delicious, you want more of it. (Lady Bracknell, perhaps?)
Everyone has a ball. Dylan Godwin shines as cad Willoughby; Chris Hutchison hesitates as the timid Colonel Brandon, then snarls imperiously as Mrs. Ferrars; Laura Kaldis is pure teenage joy as the youngest sister Margaret, then mindlessly chatters as Anne Steele; David Rainey channels Dickens’ Fezziwig as the rambunctious Sir John; Christopher Salazar doubles as the loyal Edward and his obnoxious brother Robert; Michelle Elaine stars as Fanny, then explodes as the gossipy Ms. Jennings; Briana Resa (reprising Christine Friale) exudes motherly warmth as the dutiful Mrs. Dashwood; Melissa Molano chats as Lucy Steele, a dark bubble-head. They all mix and match like the Ensemble, like the “Venticelli” in Amedeethe gossips of society, who spy behind their opera glasses and comment bitterly on the action.
There is a glow in this production, an aura around a show well done. Lighting by Kevin Rigdon radiates softly with neon accents; Hunter Kaczorowski’s period costumes float like muslin; and Michael Locher’s topiary backdrop and greenery sweep limn his tiered “flexible set” – the latest Alley production to use this Covid-inspired set of units. (Time for a makeover.) The pungent (?) contemporary string quartet background music is uncredited, but it rocks gently with the modern flavor of Hamill’s adaptation.
Austen’s charms and ideas align perfectly in this Alley production. There is both meaning and sensitivity. Dear Jane, you look good.
Sense and Sensibility continues through March 27. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Masks optional. For more information, visit alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $28 to $91.