In a letter written to her niece in 1817, author Jane Austen wrote, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” Indeed, in Regency-era England, women of high social class and connection were schooled in the “respectable” arts — music and dance lessons and education in elegant manners prepared a young woman for a debut year designed to attract a wealthy suitor who would help ensure social standing and economic security. Without family connection and an attractive dowry, young women were doomed to the hardships and peril of poverty and low social standing. Such is the dire situation the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne and young Margaret, find themselves facing in Austen’s novel “Sense and Sensibility.”
When their father, Henry Dashwood, dies, his estate is passed down to his son from his first marriage, John Dashwood. John’s wife, Fanny, not given to generosity, has made an inhospitable environment for the rest of the Dashwoods. The Dashwood girls, along with their mother, are forced to retreat to a rented cottage in the country. But before they depart, Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, the shy heir to a large fortune, and Elinor Dashwood have a chance meeting in the parlor.
Don’t be fooled by the tense backdrop — Lansing Community College’s production of “Sense and Sensibility” is a delicious romp. Like a colorful platter of meringues, Kate Hamill’s adaptation is designed to be light, sweet and delightful. Faithfully executed by the cast and crew and expertly directed by Mary Job, the performance is a fete of ingenious minimalist staging and fast-paced comedy. From the clever touches, such as invisible dogs straining on their leashes, to the ventriloquist dummy that serves as the ancient dowager Ferrars, this production is fluid and snappy.
While Vivian Brown’s portrayal of Marianne Dashwood is more “ingenue” than the headstrong young woman that faithful Austen fans remember, her singing and speaking voice is enchanting. Standout comedic performances by Hannah Spencer as Margaret Dashwood/Lucy Steele and Nick Lemmer’s larger-than-life Sir John Middleton must be mentioned. But even better than their individual performances, this cast is at its best as an ensemble.
True to the script, the Gossips of this production provide stinging social commentary and underscore the moral codes of the era. Cast members deftly fly into Gossip roles, synchronously buzzing with juicy tidbits, and then out into other cast roles seamlessly within scenes. Rolling furniture that doubles as a carriage drawn by human horses, the cast’s “tick-tock” chant to convey the passage of time, a modern spin on a reel dance and even the retrieval of a wayward sheet of paper that flew off a desk and a button that popped off a waistcoat on opening night reveal that everything is well-timed and economical. Props to assistant scenic designer Kessler Jones and costume and sound designer Chelle Peterson.
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