"Sense and Sensibility"

Clockwise from top left: Kayla Carter (Elinor), Kimberly Chatterjee (Marianne), Nandita Shenoy (Mrs. Dashwood) and Margaret (Erin Lockett). 

The Hangar Theatre ended its streaming summer season on a high note last weekend, with its online production of Kate Hamill’s deliciously gossipy “Sense and Sensibility,” adapted from the 1811 Jane Austen novel. Hamill, an Ithaca College theatre grad and former Lansing resident, has had great success with her contemporary, feminist, comical re-envisionings of classic fiction, especially Austen’s social novels. In previous seasons, the Hangar produced her “Pride and Prejudice” as well as Alcott’s “Little Women.”

Hamill and her husband, actor Jason O’Connell, were featured in the pre-show chat, when she spoke about the Hangar being her first professional theatrical home: “It’s where theatre begins for me –– the Hangar experience taught me to love theatre.” Hamill also reinforced why she’s drawn to the classics: She wanted to “open up the universality, kick down the doors to the church and let all the people in.”

The themes of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” still resound familiarly today: marriage and money (or lack of it), social class and snobbery, seduction and abandonment, hypocrisy and honest feeling, and unwanted interference from others, whether mean-spirited or simply thoughtless. Hangar associate artistic director Shirley Serotsky ably directs a superb cast of 10 with insight and grace (though timing was a bit slow at points). An early scene with multiple characters nattering all at once was incoherent, but happily this was an anomaly; most dialogue, lightly tinged with British accents, was clearly delivered. (Though a program could be downloaded, it still would be truly helpful to see the cast listed onscreen, perhaps during intermission.)

Sound effects, like the drenching rain or bumping cart wheels, added to the ambience, as did the occasional framing of rural greenery and country roads. Costumes were apt, with minor switches as eight of the actors assumed up to four different roles (though the Johns Willoughby and Dashwood needed greater distinction). But it was mostly up to the versatile actors to indicate who they were at any moment, which they did most vivaciously.

The tale: Mrs. Dashwood and her brood have lost their home and inheritance to the son from her husband’s first marriage, and from there it’s all an intriguing tangle of who’s in and who’s not, who gets to romance whom, with the perfidy and opportunism of some on display versus the moral faithfulness of others. 

The heart of the production is the eldest Dashwood sisters—the prudent, mature Elinor and the impetuous, outspoken Marianne, played marvelously by Kayla Carter and Kimberly Chatterjee. Their supportive mother is graciously rendered by Nandita Shenoy; their peevish little sister, Margaret, by Erin Lockett. And it’s especially refreshing to see this Austen family unfold with a variety of actors all of color.

Whenever Carter appeared as Elinor, modest and thoughtful, full of gravitas, but radiant with youth and the conviction of doing the right thing—well, it was hard to take your eyes from her. She anchored the show, and in her beloved Edward, a modest and flustered Alex Purcell, she found her perfect match. (A sign of Purcell’s versatility was doubling as his boorish, obnoxious brother Robert, in one hysterical scene where he waxes nostalgic about the virtues of “cottages.”)

Another actor handily pulling off multiple roles is Rachel Ravel, first as the smug, selfish wife of the usurping brother John Dashwood; then as neighbor Middleton’s wife, immersed in her dinner plate; and finally as the giddy Lucy Steele, who’s convinced Edward is hers alone. John Middleton shines as the effusive Middleton, and Carmen LaCivita is a somber, steadying force as the “older” Col. Brandon, duty-bound and above reproach, who loves Marianne selflessly.

Jared Brendon Hopper is dashingly handsome and equally persuasive as the compromising, insensitive usurper, John Dashwood (who lets his wife talk him out of financing Mrs. D and her girls), and the fickle, irresponsible John Willoughby (who falls for Marianne but cuts her mercilessly once his fortunes are threatened).

In a tattling social drama rife with comedy, two actors simply sparkle: Carla Briscoe as Mrs. Jennings, Middleton’s chatterbox mother-in-law and self-appointed matchmaker; and Nandita Shenoy as Lucy Steele’s sister, Anne, an airhead teen who’d be at home in “Clueless.” 

Even most of the erring characters have depth, as Chatterjee’s Marianne shows. She displays the most growth, from her passionate belief in Willoughby’s feelings and her complex, appreciative relation to Elinor to her final acceptance of Col. Brandon’s silent support.

Of course the story ends with happy marriages all around (three at last count). If you ever needed romantic mayhem to take you out of your covid slump, this was it. And surely that late love scene—finally!— between Elinor and Edward, will linger in your memory, where he says, “Oh, Elinor, if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Sweetness is all.

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Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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