Maybe you remember the story of Sense and Sensibility from English Lit, or your own reading, or one of its many TV and film incarnations. If not, playwright and director Jon Jory has a primer:
“This is a story that pits passion against rationality.”
Jory’s words appear in the program for the new Actors Theatre of Louisville production of Sense and Sensibility. Jory adapted the script from Jane Austen’s classic novel. The book turns 200 this year and what’s clear from the first moments of this production is that the struggle between rationality (sense) and passion (sensibility) is as relevant today as ever.
Look around: How many of the millions of Americans who are out of work know this struggle, for example? How high a priority can the unemployed place on preference as they look for work? How many of the people who are underwater on their mortgages or grappling with credit card debt have looked back on their own decisions and wished they’d given more weight to sense than sensibility?
Anyone who’s faced those concerns won’t have trouble identifying with the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Their father dies, leaving his estate to their half-brother, the product of the father’s first marriage. The half-brother’s greedy wife conspires to deny the sisters a cut and the girls, both in their late teens, find they have few options for finding security beyond their own matrimonial prospects. (Austen herself was nineteen or twenty when she began writing Sense and Sensibility, originally titled Elinor and Marianne).
Elinor (Nancy Lemenager) is the more practical, prudent (sensible) of the two, though she’s not without feeling. As Austen writes of Elinor, “her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them.” That governance is clear in Lemeanger’s rendering of Elinor, who often seems to be trying hard restrain a smile. Elinor’s adherence to duty and propriety seems to be based in her desire to keep herself and her loved ones safe.
Marianne (Helen Sadler) is full of passion, energy and caustic wit. (Austen: “She was… eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.”) Sadler offers a dark and defiant dimension to Marianne as well, as if the character had observed the rule-followers around her, seen the heartbreak and disappointment they sometimes suffered and decided to follow a different path.
The sisters’ loving conflict is embodied in the set, which is both simple and grand at the same time. Its main features are an ornate centerstage doorframe and a curved white wall that lines the back of the stage. Lights projected onto the wall create the illusion of various settings: an outdoor picnic, a parlor room or a garden at night.
The struggle between rationality and passion is relevant, of course, to Actors Theatre itself. Before the show, Managing Director Jennifer Bielstein addressed the audience. She thanked the sponsors and the season ticket holders and encouraged anyone who had not purchased season tickets to consider doing so. Actors Theatre counts on the up-front money from season tickets to help pay for the upcoming season, which includes reliable audience favorites like Dracula and A Christmas Carol and riskier productions like ReEntry.
The Dashwood sisters find their choices lead to both love and heartache and the lesson of their story (and Actors Theatre’s production) seems to be that there are no sure paths to security or happiness and that the best any of us can do is to strike a balance between our sense and sensibility.