Love, hurt and heal with UAA’s stage interpretation of Jane Austin’s classic story

UAA Department of Theatre and Dance's poster for "Sense and Sensibility."
UAA Department of Theatre and Dance’s poster for “Sense and Sensibility.”

Who would’ve thought an eccentric old lady would steal the show?

Jane Austin’s “Sense and Sensibility” (adapted by Jon Jory and directed by Elizabeth Ware) is currently showing on UAA’s Mainstage Theatre, and while the production itself is witty and fun, nothing takes the cake quite as insistently as Grace Hawkins’ portrayal of Mrs. Jenkins, a minor character that is typically quite annoying.

For those unfamiliar with “Sense and Sensibility,” it is the story of two sisters, Elinor (Andrea Staats Robar) and Marianne (Taylor Campbell) Dashwood, as their family is forced to move their household and forge new social connections. These connections lead to love, heartbreak, self-discovery and, perhaps, even a touch of happiness in the end.

One of those connections is Mrs. Jenkins, who has already married off her own daughters and is keen to help marry off the two eldest Dashwood sisters (the youngest, Margaret, was not cast for the production, and is occasionally referred as being “over there” somewhere off set). In both the book and the film adaptation of the story, Mrs. Jenkins has her heart in the right place, but her over-excitability is often overbearing and frustrating. Hawkins’ interpretation of her, however, walks the fine line between comical and annoying, oftentimes toeing the barrier between the two. Her facial expressions always ring true, and her snappy line delivery is both precise and witty.

At one point, she is literally jumping up and down in a chair with poorly contained excitement, and while it is overdone by some standards, it is absolutely what the character of Mrs. Jenkins would do; she herself is that overdone by nature. The performance is brilliant, and is the most memorable in the production.

Elinor as a character is arguably the “better” sister; she is the one who comforts despite her own sorrow, the practical and quiet one who is willing to be kind to even her rival in love, because she is just that good. She feels just as fiercely as her younger sister Marianne, but does so within the strict conventions of propriety of the Regency Period. Robar rises to the challenges of this character beautifully.

She is gentle, utterly refined and when the time comes for Elinor to finally let loose and express an emotion openly, Robar gives a performance that first stuns and then properly goads the audience into laughter. Of all the wonderful moments Robar gives us as Elinor, and her particular brand of humor and line delivery makes her a personal favorite of all Elinors, this particular moment is so liberating. It releases a tension that has been building in both the character and the audience, and the rest of the scene almost doesn’t matter. Because in that moment, we the audience know somehow that everything is going to be OK, even if we aren’t familiar with the story.

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Campbell’s Marianne is a childish one that both frustrates (appropriately, considering the character) and invites. There are moments when her overly romantic notions annoy, and others when they are endearing. Her character is a complicated one, and even more complicated is the task of making her likable for the entire production. Campbell does the job well, and her giddiness is infectious rather than off-putting (similar to Hawkins as Mrs. Jenkins). There isn’t a defining moment for Campbell’s performance, but it is consistent and of quality the entire time. Even in her character’s most frustrating moments, she is a joy to watch.

The particular performance reviewed was the pre-showing, essentially a final dress rehearsal, but in front of an audience. It is common for slight slips in line delivery to occur here, when the cast is before an audience for the first time, even if it never happens again.

A few such instances occurred in this performance, and are worth mentioning for the fantastic recovery after each one. Never once was there a stall, and a few times it was difficult to determine whether or not there had been a slip at all. Not all of the characters are meant to be eloquently spoken, and most of the few slips that occurred were so well-covered that it seemed perfectly in line with the character who made the mistake.

Things happen and occasionally a line is missed or misspoken here or there; it isn’t a big deal. But when actors can recover as well as they did in that particular performance, they deserve a shout-out and kudos for keeping things moving with such quality.

The only real issue with the production is with the writing. In the story, a particular character does something foolish and becomes ill as a result. While this takes place in the production, the scene of the foolish act is left out, and the result seems rather choppy. The audience is left questioning why the character would do something so utterly stupid. Without that scene, (and consequently, the character’s mind-set), the occurrence makes little sense.

Overall, the production is wonderful, and full of talent. Keep an eye on Grace Hawkins and Andrea Staats Robar especially, and you’ll have plenty of fun.

Jane Austin’s “Sense and Sensibility” will be running in the Mainstage Theatre in the Fine Arts building until Sunday, March 22. Friday and Saturday showings are at 8 p.m. and Sunday showings are at 3 p.m. Tickets are $17 general public, $15 for non-UAA students, seniors, or military, and $10 for students, and can be purchased at UAAtix.com or at the Fine Arts Box Office.