Northlight stages faithful 'Sense & Sensibility'

 
 
Updated 3/29/2011 9:44 AM
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  • Heidi Kettenring, left, plays the rational Elinor and Helen Sadler plays her romantic sister Marianne in Jon Jory's world premiere adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility" for Northlight Theatre.

    Heidi Kettenring, left, plays the rational Elinor and Helen Sadler plays her romantic sister Marianne in Jon Jory's world premiere adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility" for Northlight Theatre.

  • An accident brings together the dashing Willoughby (Greg Matthew Anderson), Marianne (Helen Sadler), center and her sister Elinor (Heidi Kettenring) in Northlight Theatre's "Sense & Sensibility."

    An accident brings together the dashing Willoughby (Greg Matthew Anderson), Marianne (Helen Sadler), center and her sister Elinor (Heidi Kettenring) in Northlight Theatre's "Sense & Sensibility."

  • While her mother (Penny Slusher), left, looks on, Marianne (Helen Sadler) bids welcome to the sedate Edward (Geoff Rice), who is the perfect soul mate for her sensible sister Elinor (Heidi Kettenring), back, in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of Jon Jory's adaptation of "Sense & Sensibility."

    While her mother (Penny Slusher), left, looks on, Marianne (Helen Sadler) bids welcome to the sedate Edward (Geoff Rice), who is the perfect soul mate for her sensible sister Elinor (Heidi Kettenring), back, in Northlight Theatre's world premiere of Jon Jory's adaptation of "Sense & Sensibility."

  • Two halves -- played by Heidi Kettenring, left, and Helen Sadler -- make a perfect whole in Northlight Theatre's "Sense & Sensibility."

    Two halves -- played by Heidi Kettenring, left, and Helen Sadler -- make a perfect whole in Northlight Theatre's "Sense & Sensibility."

It is a literary truth universally acknowledged that an unmarried Jane Austen protagonist of charm, intellect and limited means must be in want of a husband. It is also true that if said heroine should find her true love, misunderstanding and disappointment will hinder their pursuit of happiness.

So it is with Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the devoted albeit temperamentally opposed sisters in Northlight Theatre's brisk, appealing production of "Sense & Sensibility" -- Austen's keen take on the necessity of balancing prudence, reason and restraint with emotion, impulse and abandon.

Adapter and director Jon Jory, formerly of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, faithfully preserves Austen's singular dialogue and the integrity of her estimable heroines. His sprightly production is notable for its solid storytelling, discerning cast and seamless staging, which helps keep Austen's rather involved tale moving forward. Add to that the sincerity and emotional depth the perfectly cast Heidi Kettenring and Helen Sadler bring to Austen's Dashwood sisters and you have an estimable incarnation of the 1811 novel.

It opens with the widowed Mrs. Dashwood (Penny Slusher) and her daughters Elinor (Kettenring, whose passion is perfectly contained), Marianne (the ardent Sadler, who puts restless energy to excellent use) and the unseen Margaret (whose absence is explained by her fondness for animals and tree climbing) learning they have neither home nor income. In accordance with early 19th-century laws, the property of Mrs. Dashwood's late husband passed to his eldest son John (Si Osborne) by his first wife.

John's manipulative wife, Franny (Franette Liebow), bullies her husband into displacing his half sisters and stepmother who accept an offer from a distant relative -- Sir John Middleton (a grand, gregarious performance from V Craig Heidenreich) -- to live in a cottage on his estate.

There they encounter Mrs. Jennings (the endearingly meddlesome Wendy Robie), a self-styled matchmaker determined to see Elinor and Marianne wed.

To that end, temperate, sensible Elinor finds herself attracted to the diffident Edward (Geoff Rice), a staid, principled man and aspiring pastor. Meanwhile, the unrestrained, passionate Marianne has eyes only for the dashing John Willoughby, a well-mannered cad winningly played by Hoffman Estates' Greg Matthew Anderson. A lover of tumbling clouds and stormy skies, the 17-year-old Marianne rejects the honorable Colonel Brandon (a complex, deeply felt performance by Jay Whittaker), a 35-year-old retired soldier whom Marianne dismisses as too old for marriage.

Also on hand is Lucy Steele (a nicely idiosyncratic, irresistibly effusive Diane Mair), a young woman with marriage on her mind, and Robert Ferrars, Edward's dandified brother, played with the right amount of impudence by Jordan Brown.

The most striking thing about these characters -- aside from their extraordinary reliance on protocol -- is how very self-aware they are, even if that perception does not necessarily translate to improved behavior. Moreover, Jory's able cast does a superb job revealing the carefully controlled pain, the profound emotional struggles and the overriding self-interest that animate these individuals -- all the while maintaining the image of perfect decorum that the era demanded.

The action unfolds on Tom Burch's spare, minimalist set, which combines a few classical accents (elegant double doors, a sliver of molding suspended overhead) with an abstract backdrop that suggests the moon. While lovely, the stylistically incoherent set doesn't fully satisfy. But that is a minor criticism.

As in all Jane Austen novels, the partners best suited to each other -- soul mates you might call them -- eventually wind up together. But I would suggest in this case that the most true soul mates are the Dashwood sisters themselves. They are two halves -- reason and passion -- who together make up a perfect whole that epitomizes not just a spirit in balance but the enduring bond of sisterhood.