Austen Adaptations Mostly Persuade

Book-It nails the tone, and Attic trips on the irony.

Jane Austen is simply the shrewdest commentator on matters of the heart who ever set pen to paper, and I always marvel at people who marvel at her popularity. But isn't her time and place too remote from ours for her commentary to be, you know, relevant? Granted, her world of microscopically observed behavior, relentless social pressure, rigid caste stratification, and emotional ebb and flow would be totally alien to anyone who never attended high school. And as for the deadpan irony she uses to record and satirize this behavior—well, if Austen were alive, she could sue Stephen Colbert's writers for plagiarizing her literary method and win. Yes, her novels all end with a wedding, but paths to this happy ending are imaginatively varied. In Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, the hero and heroine meet and (more or less) attach themselves early on, and the plot concerns their perseverance in the face of obstacles. (Abbey is much more about the development of the heroine than of the relationship.) In Pride and Prejudice, the obstacle is the hero and heroine's own mutual antipathy. In Emma, the heroine doesn't even realize the hero is the hero until chapter 47 (of 55). And in Persuasion's backstory, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth were engaged eight years earlier, but she'd been pressured—persuaded—to break it off. It's Austeniana at its purest. Scrutinized behavior is not just Austen's method here, it's the very substance of the plot—everything Wentworth does is examined as evidence that he does or doesn't still feel anything for Anne—and the author's ruthless social criticism is double-barreled: Austen doesn't merely ironize about repressive mores, she shows us directly their deep and scarring effect. It's that irony that makes Austen adaptations so treacherous (if irresistible); she hints sideways at character traits which an actor has no choice but to embody outright. Thus the risk is lapsing into caricature, a risk not entirely averted in either Book-It's Persuasion or Attic Theatre's Sense and Sensibility, both presently running. It's not a problem with characters who are drawn as cartoons anyway—like S&S's adorable gossip Mrs. Jennings, a "merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar." But it is an issue with, for example, Persuasion's Lady Russell, who, overcautious about the uncertain future of then–novice seaman Wentworth, encouraged the scarring breakup. To most modern readers, yes, she's an icy bitch, but I think Book-It's Pam Nolte leaned a shade further in that direction than was intended by Austen, who took pains to emphasize the kindness of Lady Russell's motives despite her wrongheaded rationale and its heartbreaking result. Here's another example of a miscalculation. Chapter 2 of S&S is one of Austen's most cruelly funny scenes: a man and his wife discuss what level of financial assistance they should render his stepmother and her children, newly impoverished. The couple gradually talk themselves out of generosity, reducing the amount of the gift like a reverse auction, until Austen finally nails them by having the wife pipe up, "They will be much more able to give you something." Devastatingly, Austen satirizes the ways people unthinkingly rationalize unkindness (nope, no contemporary resonance there); we gradually realize the truth that lies under the couple's surface gentility while they, sanctimonious and clueless, realize nothing. In context, that punch line is as deliciously sick a joke on the dark side of human nature as in any early John Waters movie. In Attic's adaptation, the couple, played by Sharon Musselwhite and Roger Wilson, is, I think, too self-aware; their greed is blatant, and they're nasty from the start—they know it, and we know it. Austen's beautifully stage-managed satirical point is thus diminished. Book-It's method of translating novel to play is to draw on a book's prose as well as its dialogue, and Jen Taylor and Colin Byrne did the honors here. Delivered at the naturalistic speed of conversation, Austen's descriptions whisk by faster than can be savored, though the conversation itself is convincingly played. Ashley Barnard's reworking of S&S also incorporates a gratifying amount of Austen's own words, but the scenes are more gently paced—so much so that I wondered at the start how they were going to get through the whole book in an afternoon. They managed because the adaptation is less deft and more mechanical, especially later on: heroine Elinor is stuck in the drawing room for the entire second act as one character after another pops in with a revelation. Entrance, plot point, exit. Entrance, plot point, exit. Lorrie Fargo, though, made Elinor's constant presence a pleasure. She's the restrained, prudent voice of sense to her sister Marianne's fluttering emotional susceptibility (and consequent tactlessness), and Fargo depicts affectingly both her resolve toward self-control and the emotions flitting, despite herself, across her face. (Sit up close to watch her at work.) Heather McRobbie is no less skilled in her portrayal of Marianne's sensibility, her feelings lying on the surface. And Chiara Motley makes the shy Anne the powerful emotional and moral anchor of Book-It's Persuasion, just as Austen did in her last completed novel (the subsequent Sanditon must be one of literary history's most heartbreakingly truncated fragments). Motley plays this famously self-effacing character in a way that thoroughly holds your attention: no small achievement. She centers a production that goes an admirable way toward realizing the elegiac atmosphere of Austen's most bittersweet work.

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