Sense & Sensibility, deftly matched

Suddenly the Dashwood sisters are all over Oregon. Clackamas Rep is on the boards with its version of Jane Austen's lively and enduring tale.

The problem, as so often in the novels of Jane Austen, is entailment, that peculiar institution among the British of willing estates only to the male heirs of the line, leaving the women bereft, or at least forced to move to modest cottages in the countryside. The problem, further, is how to deal with such reduced circumstances (and indeed, with the vagaries of life): by leading with the head, or the heart, or some creative combination of the two. The anticipation, of both head and heart, is to achieve a state of marital happiness that, in a troubled and troublesome world, will also suffice in the economic realm. Money might not buy happiness, but it does provide stability, and stability is that soil in which true romance and contentment of the soul can grow and prosper.

Sam Levi as Edward Ferrars, Kailey Rhodes as Elinor Dashwood in Clackamas Rep’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo: Sam Ortega

So welcome to the Dashwood sisters, central figures in Miss Austen’s 1813 novel Sense and Sensibility (which was published at first anonymously, under the moniker “By a Lady”). When we meet them, in Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s new production of Kate Hamill’s episodic stage adaptation, their father has just died, leaving his estate to John, his weakling son from his first marriage, who is led about by the nose by his shrewish and selfish wife Fanny, who persuades John that his father’s deathbed instruction to him that he provide for his half-sisters and their mother doesn’t really mean what it seems. And so the sisters – sensible Elinor and romantic Marianne, primarily, but also younger Margaret and their mother, who quietly copes – find themselves tossed out of their manorial home and onto the mercies of Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John Middleton, who proves himself an amiable and generous fellow and helps them settle in to a pleasant but modest cottage, where the girls’ prospects, nevertheless, are severely reduced: to put it bluntly, no fortune, no fortunate match.

This is familiar Austen territory, ripe with dramatic and literary possibility – a sweeping romance deepened by the author’s wit, sharp observation of human character and foibles, and keen understanding of both the smothering force and essential instability of economic, social, and cultural traditions. She concerns herself, and her readers, with traditional virtues such as loyalty, honor, compassion, and learning. Who has them? Who does not? Who seems to have them, but lacks them? Who seems to lack them, but has them? Austen’s characters routinely encounter stormy seas, and must steer their ships to safety or crash and sink on unheeded shoals. It is not just skill but also goodness, often hard-earned, that gets them safely into harbor.

Olivia Shimkus and Debbie Hunter Kerns, dishing on the divan. Photo: Sam Ortega

Another great 19th century British literary figure, Charles Dickens, would broaden Austen’s concerns to the working class and truly poor, speaking far more bluntly of the human effects of economic imbalance (a message once again urgent in the 21st century) and adding a layer of reform zeal to Austen’s theme of the fragility of the social compact. His humor, of which there is plenty, almost always has a sharp, caustic edge: He’s a caricaturist, using words the way Rowlandson and Daumier used ink and paint.

Austen’s humor pervades her novels but in a more understated way, in the general optimism for her major characters and the light lampooning of other characters, who often revert to type: the gossip, the layabout, the underhanded, the pettily tyrannical, the overindulgent, the just plain foolish. It’s less a matter of punch lines than a mood built into the language; a humor of the literary landscape. Clackamas Rep’s production, directed by Karlyn Love, adopts an almost arch tone, emphasizing the humor of type and sometimes moving more broadly into lampoon and farce: Rather than letting the comedy rise more naturally from the situation, it can seem jokey and at times almost too eager to please. Yet by the end it’s shifted subtly into a deep and satisfying emotional resolution, the serious and moral conviction that underpins all of Austen’s entertainments.

Alex Fox (left), Olivia Shimkus and Sam Levi: Whatever shall they do? Photo: Sam Ortega

Hamill’s adaptation breaks into forty-six brisk scenes, each announced via projection on Christopher D. Whitten’s spare and excellent set (he also designed the lighting), which is made up of tall panels around which the cast of 10 can move quickly and efficiently. A panoply of props, by Deb Dahling and Jennifer Whitten, provides the variation to distinguish scene from scene, and Sydney Dufka’s costumes provide a quiet ravishment of period design. The design provides a splendid anchor for the performers’ whir of activity: Except for Kailey Rhodes as Elinor and Molly Bowman as Marianne, each cast member steps rapidly in and out of an array of roles, at times even becoming horses or inanimate objects such as carriages. It requires a whip-smart attention to detail and timing, and on the whole the cast pulls it off with élan.

Alex Fox, for instance, makes a fine distinction between his portrayals of the unfaithful suitor Willoughby and the rich but spineless brother John Dashwood, each weak in very different ways. Olivia Shimkus is all pinched and curdled as the nefarious Fanny Dashwood, and more reserved as the quiet Lady Middleton, who seems content to remain in her gregarious husband’s shadow. Todd Van Voris is that hale-and-well-met husband, as well as a doctor, a servant, and a gossip. Holly Wigmore is the youngest Dashwood, Margaret, as well as the sincerely scheming young Lucy Steele, determined to stay attached to hapless Edward Ferrars until his brother, Robert, appears on the scene with a more attractive bank balance. Sam Levi distinguishes neatly between the two Ferrars brothers – bumbling, gentle, earnest Edward, trying to do the right thing and losing his way in the process; loud, effete, repellent Robert, who nevertheless possesses that valuably overstuffed wallet. Debbie Hunter Kerns displays a nice reserved humor as the newly widowed Mrs. Dashwood, balancing that role with a couple of other deftly etched minor characters; and Bowman provides a well-modulated transformation for Marianne Dashwood from impulsive flibbertigibbet to a more reserved and gracious adult who learns to temper her emotions with thought. The excellent actor Mark Schwahn spends most of his performance in drag as Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law, whose farcically over-the-top characterization nevertheless sometimes seems dragged in from an Oscar Wilde or Charles Ludlam play.

Tim Blough as Colonel Brandon, reading to the recuperating Marianne Dashwood (Molly Bowman). Photo: Sam Ortega

But the steady center of this production, the two performances that anchor it and keep it grounded in Austen’s serious intentions, are Rhodes’s finely modulated and quietly expressive characterization of Elinor Dashwood, whose rare sense, deep convictions, and equally deep capacity to love are at the heart and soul of the story; and Tim Blough’s reserved and dignified and quietly eloquent portrayal of Colonel Brandon, who has secrets that are not of the unsavory sort but rather ones that deal with honor.

Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a hot property right now. It’s playing in a season-long run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in what’s reported to be a very different interpretation (both Daniel Pollack-Pelzner and Barry Johnson have written about it for ArtsWatch), and it’ll play in January and February 2019 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory. See ’em all, if you get a chance: Jane Austen is a deep well that doesn’t run dry.

Clackamas Rep’s interpretation, I continue to feel, would’ve been better served by a less eager and rambunctious approach to the comedy. Not everyone agrees, and you might not either. In the lobby after Sunday afternoon’s performance a gentleman caught my eye as he walked by, and smiled. “I’m still chuckling about that show,” he said, shaking his head happily. Then he ambled out into the sunlight, refreshed and ready for the rest of his day. I’m not going to argue with a result like that.

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Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s Sense and Sensibility continues through July 22 at the Osterman Theatre in the Niemeyer Center of Clackamas Community College, Oregon City. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Musical theater stars Susannah Mars and Meredith Kaye Clark will perform a cabaret show, Happy Days Are Here Again, featuring hits by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, at Clackamas Rep at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 15. Ticket information here.

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