By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
With Sense and Sensibility, premiering on the Citadel MainStage Thursday in a Bob Baker production, playwright Tom Wood returns to the small-town Regency life into which he first tumbled, without Jane-ite baggage (even carry-on), in 2008.
Then it was Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s sharp-eyed tart-tongued comic novel of 1813. Wood’s stage adaptation was specially created for the debut participants in the Citadel/Banff Professional Program.
Now, in honour of the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, the playwright/actor returns happily to “that world I fell in love with.” He’s created a play for this year’s Citadel/Banff actors from Austen’s first full-length novel — the first of her six — written at age 19 in 1795.
So, Tom and Jane: What is it about Austen World from the start that attracted the playwright/actor, who has always been a connoisseur of the possibilities in comedy? Last week, he took time to consider. Austen’s eagle-eyed comic portraiture, the dry ironies of her observations, her tough-mindedness about the harsh social realities of the day, “especially for the women of the age, looking for love but having to marry for security, to not lose their place to live, to survive …”
“Women do really smart work-arounds…. They take that horrible situation (the strategic marriage) and work it, in a way that gives the male system the finger! Austen’s heroines are quite remarkable!” declares Wood, whose series of Citadel adaptations includes Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the Goldoni farce A Servant of Two Masters, the Dumas swashbuckler The Three Musketeers, and the hit stage version of A Christmas Carol that’s become a veritable Edmonton institution.
He’s musing at the moment on Pride and Prejudice’s smart, resourceful Lizzie Bennett, the second of five girls in a family with a problematic surplus of marriageable daughters and an equally pressing, and related, shortage of money. “The way she’s able to run into a Mr. Darcy and be every inch his match!” Wood shakes his head in admiration.
Let no one argue the Austen canon is anything but rich when it comes to appealing and substantial women’s roles, as generations of filmmakers, TV writers, librettists and playwrights haven’t failed to notice. And that, says Wood, is a considerable attraction for director Baker, the Citadel’s former artistic director who heads the Citadel/Banff program.
With Sense and Sensibility (originally titled Elinor and Marianne), there’s not one heroine, but two. The Dashwood sisters seem to represent the polar axes suggested by the title: head vs. heart, prudent and restrained vs. expressive and emotional.
“One is practical and calm. Since Mrs. Dashwood is a lightweight, Elinor becomes the real mother of that family,” as Wood describes it. “Marianne is the drama queen, emotional and not at all practical…. And the story is how they fare. We watch how they cope with what comes at them.”
“It’s so worthy of drama! So satisfying! A great big feast!” says Wood, who has devised a way for a cast of 14 to populate the world of the story. “And the characters they encounter are so vivid…. The costumes are on fire from all the quick changes.”
The plot is set in motion by the plummeting of the Dashwood family fortune. As per inheritance law, the estate has gone to the son, whose mean, avaricious wife prevents any largesse toward the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters. Early in the novel, and Wood’s adaptation, they lose their home.
When you can’t work and you can’t inherit — the situation for genteel women — your only prospect is in an advantageous marriage. “The minute a man enters the room, it’s ‘what does he make?’ And ‘is he tolerable? Can I stand to be with him?’”
The cliché about period English drama is that it’s “ye olde ruffles,” grins Wood. Wrong wrong wrong. “Austen’s observations,” says Wood, “are brilliant, hard-headed. And the characters are dead serious, which is what makes it funny.”
And there are stakes. “As in Dickens, there’s no safety net for a family who’s had a lot of money and now has none. They are instantly desperate. What do you do? You downsize. You write your relatives. You tell your mom she can’t have this or that….” He laughs. “In Downton Abbey, not Austen, you hold your nose and get yourself a rich American.”
Adapting any novel for the theatre starts with rejecting narration, Wood thinks. “No narration!” is his mantra. “Narration is for novels! The lifeblood of theatre is dramatic action, when one person wants something and the other person doesn’t want to give it to them.”
Austen’s lines sparkle. But Sense and Sensibility is particularly tricky, because usable dialogue is at a premium. In fact, as Wood points out, the novel’s first incarnation was a series of letters, back and forth. And description doesn’t have a natural home onstage. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a playwright in possession of a good novel must be in want of … dialogue, not description.
So the playwright had to step up. When you’re sharing writing duties with Austen, you’ve got to be delighted whenever the cast didn’t know whose lines were whose. Wood admits he was.
In a society with a thick carapace of proprieties and manners, what is not said is often more meaningful than what gets verbalized. “When you’re in a medium, like theatre, with no close-ups, in a period when women can’t say what really think, you have to be really clever at showing the subtext.”
“Elinor has to be the rock of the family; she has to undergo all her pain and suffering in silence. I had to find ways to reveal what she’s feeling so I made her a painter…. In portraiture she can express what she feels.” What is she painting? A portrait of the beloved house they’re about to leave. It speaks volumes about loss when she can’t.
Says Wood, “it’s a great novel. And she’s a great heroine.”
Sense and Sensibility
Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Jane Austen novel
Directed by: Bob Baker
Starring: participants of the Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Program, as well as Julien Arnold and Jamie Williams
Running: Thursday through May 14
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com