Jane Austen seems to bring out the best in people — and especially in actors. You see it time and time again in the splendid film and television adaptations of her piquantly civilized novels. And you certainly sense it all the way through the irresistible version of “Sense and Sensibility” that is currently wrapping the stage of Folger Theatre in ribbons of enchantment.
Director Eric Tucker and playwright Kate Hamill of New York’s Bedlam troupe affirm the richness of theatrical opportunity in Austen’s decorously vibrant characters, in a fluid staging that sparkles with wit and invention. Modeled closely on their hit off-Broadway production, still running in Greenwich Village, the Folger spinoff (with a completely new cast) successfully bottles the spirit of the 19th-century novelist afresh, in its rendering of the pure-hearted Dashwood sisters and the waves of cattiness and misfortune that batter them this way and that.
It’s an enterprise so fleet of conception that it quite literally glides through the stories of the romantic struggles of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, played endearingly by Maggie McDowell and Erin Weaver, and the men who want and/or beguile them. (In those roles, Jacob Fishel, James Patrick Nelson and Jamie Smithson are, separately and together, just plain terrific.) The gliding has to do with the casters that Tucker and a savvy set designer, John McDermott, attach to all of the chairs, tables, sofas and other furniture that the 10 actors briskly roll on and off the stage.
So if this “Sense and Sensibility” has abundant heart in common with the 1995 motion picture (with which it otherwise has no connection), it is partly because it is such a clever picture in motion.
What a ripping good yarn it is, too, and from the very start, Tucker and his associates go to smart lengths to warm spectators to the Dashwoods’ plights. In ways reminiscent of Fiasco Theater, another young New York company that has charmed Folger playgoers — with a delightfully intimate version of Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” — the Bedlam folks are all about dismantling the barriers between an audience and a classic text. The actors, to that end, stop to chat with us, in designer Mariah Hale’s lovely period costumes, as we settle into our seats; you may bump into one or two of them at intermission, too. As a result, their shift to the manners of the English gentry, landed and not so landed, and achieved through uniformly persuasive accents and deft physical performances, is all the more bewitching.
Hamill and Tucker’s style of breaking down a complexly plotted novel to digestible dramatics owes a debt to the Royal Shakespeare Company and its epic 1980 mounting of Charles Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” As in that landmark two-part event, the props here are minimal, yielding space onstage to the story’s rewardingly outsize personalities. Some of the best work in this “Sense and Sensibility” thusly emerges in supporting turns: A smashing Caroline Stefanie Clay, for example, offers an ideal account of Mrs. Jennings, the kindly if socially klutzy lover of scandal who takes Elinor and Marianne under her wing. And in the doubling of roles by Lisa Birnbaum (as both the Dashwoods’ mother and the ditziest young woman in their circle) and Kathryn Tkel (as a pair of social vipers a generation apart), one sees how deftly in every sense the wheels of this production spin.
Fishel, meanwhile, in the parts of Marianne’s tormentor, the bounder Willoughby, and the Dashwoods’ oblivious brother John, manages the amazing trick of taking handsomeness on and off at will. The sober courtliness of Colonel Brandon is conveyed touchingly in the slow, dignified bows enacted by the ever more affecting Nelson, and Smithson brings a disarming esprit to his turn as Elinor’s faithful if misapprehended suitor, Edward. (Michael Glenn and Nicole Kang also prove indispensable in smaller but crucial comic roles.)
Though at almost two and three-quarter hours, the storytelling threatens to stretch to luxurious lengths, Tucker uses the time ingeniously. During the fun-to-watch scene transitions, the actors talk softly nonstop: Gossip, it seems, is the underscoring on which the world of “Sense and Sensibility” dances. Walks through the woods and trips on horseback are realized with the help of cast members brandishing tree branches that recede as the characters advance. The veritable whirl of the narrative takes on a physical dimension, too, as actors pull other actors, seated on chairs and divans, in circles around the stage.
It is around the hopes, of course, of Elinor and Marianne, so fervently embodied by McDowell and Weaver, that “Sense and Sensibility” truly revolves. And when at last the wheels of this altogether delightful vehicle come to rest and their happiness is assured, we find ourselves arriving at a joyful juncture right along with them. At such an accomplished turn of events, Austen herself would stand up and cheer.
Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamill from the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Eric Tucker. Choreography, Alexandra Beller; set, John McDermott; costumes, Mariah Hale; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, James Bigbee Garver; casting, Daryl Eisenberg and Teresa Wood; dramaturgy, Michele Osherow. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Tickets: $30-$75. Through Oct. 30 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Visit folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.