★★★★☆ - Delicious
It's funny how the person with a guarded heart is often the one who feels pain the most fully. In Jane Austen's 1811 novel "Sense and Sensibility," about two young sisters left virtually penniless by the death of their father in Regency era England, Elinor Dashwood carries the emotional weight of the story squarely on her shoulders from start to finish, maintaining calm and strength in the midst of many storms. She is the sensible one, and her quiet suffering resonates deeply during Nevada Conservatory Theatre's elegantly stylized, inventive presentation of Kate Hamill's innovative and comical 2014 adaptation of the satirical work, now playing at the Judy Bailey Theatre.
Under the measured direction of Paul Barnes, Alexandra Ralph paints a gently layered portrait of the stoic Elinor which transports Austen's words through the ages to effortlessly tug at the heart strings. Barnes wisely allows an early, awkward scene involving the first pivotal meeting between Elinor and future suitor Edward Ferrars to unfold at a leisurely pace so we can see their mutual affinity develop, since they have precious little time together otherwise and her secret pining for him is a thread that helps drive the story. Their attraction is clear with Brandon Dawson giving a genuinely charming and thoughtful portrayal of the humble Edward that also transcends the years. We feel for him when he privately chides himself for his bumbling behavior, and like Elinor we patiently wait for his return.
There are plenty of fine performances in the lively show. Therese Anderberg creates a feisty and sweetly naive Marianne, the sentimental sister who bares her feelings for all to see. She and Ralph share a warm, sisterly rapport, and Mindy Woodhead as their mother Mrs. Dashwood complements them nicely with her naturally loving, empathetic take along with the cheerful Christina Harvey as little sister Margaret. Keach Siriani Madden is tall and handsome with a distinguished air, though he's a bit too upright as Marianne's dashing seducer John Willoughby, while Kris Pruett is a paradoxical delight as her uptight, sullen suitor Colonel Brandon. He's another who's great at conveying an inner life of repressed emotion, and his smile is a revelation when he wins the girl in the end. And Scottie Scott provides ebullient and obnoxious, infinitely lovable comic relief as the "busy bee" Mrs. Jennings, as does the very funny Myles Lee as Sir John.
In Austen's day a person's place in stuffy society depended on their gender, status, and class. Women sat around waiting most of the time and love wasn't an option in marriage. It was all about the money, and everyone enjoyed getting into everyone else's business, sniffing out scandal whenever they got a whiff. Austen's protofeminist work is filled with such busybodies, which Hamill addresses by creating an ensemble within the play called the Gossips, who serve as a babbling Greek chorus of sorts to comment snidely on the proceedings and move the narrative forward.
The Gossips help transition from scene to scene by rolling castered furniture on, off, and about. They move chairs while actors perform seated on them, and one memorable scene features rowdy characters at a dinner table being revolved with increasing speed, like a situation spiraling out of control. With movement choreographed by Woodhead, the Gossips transform into horses and working carriage, hilariously yapping dogs, and even a swirling storm that envelops Marianne. The effects are precise yet wildly dynamic, adding depth to blocking and enhancing intensity of meaning.
More shallow characters are caricatured, with Alexis Hudson as the cruel, indignant Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, Sarah Rice as the conniving Lucy Steele, and Tola Lawal as her ditzy sister Anne Steele all acquitting themselves nicely and comically in their superficial parts. But there are two important points in the show where choices (whether directorial or textual) are curiously distracting. Hudson as Fanny and Rice as Lucy, in separate scenes, deliver crucial lines outwardly with scattered focus rather than toward the characters they're manipulating. While this illustrates how little they care for others, it also unfortunately diminishes the impact of their calculated words on those who may be forever changed by them.
Technical elements are earthy and pretty, with the organic set of Jesse L. Soper, warm, leafy lights of Andrew Killion, well constructed, breezy costumes of Mallory Ward, and sound of Jimmy Kwon all bringing beautiful nature inside, as much of the piece takes place outdoors.
Sensibility ultimately captures the heart in the end in this romantic presentation by NCT.