A fun and lively adaptation of the Jane Austen classic novel, “Sense and Sensibility,” romps across the Grandstreet Theatre stage, starting Friday, Jan. 26, at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a pretty playful adaptation,” said artistic director Jeff Downing of the script by Kate Hamill, who was Wall Street Journal’s 2017 Playwright of the Year.
And from the acting and staging to the set design, Grandstreet embraces that spirit.
This is not your grandmother’s Jane Austen, he said, although it does stay true to the book.
A New York Times reviewer wrote of it that it “might be described as Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen, finding her work too reserved for lively entertainment.”
The play “follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Dashwood sisters; sensible Elinor and hypersensitive Marianne, after their father’s sudden death leaves them financially destitute and socially vulnerable,” according to the press release.
It’s set in gossipy 1790s England, and Hamill cleverly uses flamboyant gossips to propel the storyline full speed ahead.
“The adaptation really captures the spirit of Jane Austen,” said Downing, “but it moves at this really fun, contemporary pace. ...The piece really zips along.”
“It’s very clever, very smart and has a contemporary sensibility to it.”
“An unconditional delight!” wrote The New York Times of the Off-Broadway production.
While the Wall Street Journal wrote of it, “…so full of galloping comic vitality as to suggest a bunch of stupendously clever kids playing dress-up in the nursery.”
“A rip-roaring joyride... lovingly and skillfully adapted by Kate Hamill...” wrote TheaterPizzazz.
Downing designed the set as a playground for the actors, and play they do -- with wit and panache.
The action shifts quickly between 17-20 locations, said director Retta Leaphart, so Downing designed the set to make transitions flow quickly between outdoor and indoor scenes.
Seas of clouds sail across the back walls of the set, and in the foreground are three fluid “walls” woven from flower garlands, which the gossips peek through to spy and “chatter, chatter, chatter.”
The set brings together both feminine touches of the period, but also a contemporary zest.
“I have ridiculous color choices,” said Downing, including a bright pink piano.
One of the reasons he chose the play was its extreme popularity at the moment and its great parts for women.
It looks at the role of women in society, said Leaphart, “and women’s agency in their own lives.”
Another thing to love “is Jane Austen really celebrated her secondary characters,” she said. “They’re vital to the piece” and wonderful roles.
The cast includes some relative newcomers, such as Eliza Kiss as Elinor Dashwood and Molly Haniszewski as her sister Marianne, as well as familiar faces: Martha Sprague, Caroline Carey, Calder Burgam, Frank Hoovestal, Kal Poole, Chris Korow, Mary Linn Crouse, Mary Lee Larison, Trista Glazier, Aubrey Smith and Rachel Martorana.
Kiss, who was a professional actor in L.A. before moving to Helena, recently appeared in Grandstreet’s “Baskerville,” playing a head-spinning number of characters.
She describes her character, Elinor Dashwood, as the “polar opposite” of her sister Marianne.
While Marianne Dashwood is effusive, “Elinor bottles up everything.”
Both are strong women characters. Elinor is able to stay “cool, calm and collected,” said Kiss. “No matter the circumstances, she reacts with a graceful manner.”
While Kiss just recently began reading Austen, Haniszewski has been a fan for years.
“I always loved Jane Austen,” she said. She grew up reading Austen’s books with her mother and watching the films together.
She sees her character Marianne as “a very passionate person. A very creative person. She’s very motivated by her feelings. She cares a lot about the people she loves and despises the people she hates... . She delights in everything she can.”
While some might think Austen is stodgy, that’s not the case with this play, said Haniszewski. “It just really draws people in.”
Performance dates are Jan. 26 through Feb. 11, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Grandstreet Theatre is located at 325 N. Park Ave. To order tickets call the Grandstreet Box Office (afternoons): 447-1574, or order online: www.GrandstreetTheatre.com. Ticket prices are $23 Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings; $19 Wednesday evenings and Sunday matinees; $15 Kids 18 and under.