When Kate Hamill’s stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” premiered in New York two years ago, it was performed in repertory with Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” It was an inspired pairing, for the British novelist and the Russian playwright had much in common: Both buried a rich layer of comedy beneath their domestic dramas, a seam often overlooked by interpreters. But playwright Hamill has pushed the irreverent humor in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” now at Folger Theatre, to the surface, so the comedy is impossible to miss.
“To me Chekhov is so much about the restraints that class puts on you and the judgments people put on each other based on facile details, and that’s true of Austen, too,” Hamill says. “ ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for me was all about how you respond to social pressures: Do you defy them like Marianne does or do you succumb to them like Elinor and Edward do? There are consequences to both decisions. And lots of humor, too. Austen is so funny because her characters are based on people she knew in real life. They’re extreme people, but extreme people exist in the world.”
Marianne, the middle of the novel’s three Dashwood sisters, is all sensibility and no sense. As such, she’s a ready source of humor: Her all-consuming passion for the handsome John Willoughby is obviously ill-considered, and her vertiginous spiral of despair when he dumps her is equally out of proportion. But Elinor, the older sister who is all sense and no sensibility, has a similar potential for comedy.
“If Marianne is too, too much, Elinor is Captain No Fun, Debbie Downer,” says Hamill, who also is an actress. “She’s so uptight, and there are reasons for that, but the audience finds that pretty funny. That was very important to me. Particularly as a female playwright, I was interested in what happened when Marianne goes off on her own with Willoughby. I wanted to suggest that maybe something sexual happened. That makes Elinor’s reaction funnier, because she’s the No Fun Police.”
When New York theater company Bedlam first staged “Sense and Sensibility,” the troupe’s co-founder, Eric Tucker, directed. He’s directing the Folger production as well, and promises the same brisk pace and physical comedy.
“A lot of the movie versions of Austen tamp down the comedy and make the stories period-piece melodrama,” Tucker says. “I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be raw and modern. One of the reviews said our ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was Dickensian. I liked that. Our production in New York was very bawdy, and it surprised people who thought they didn’t like Austen. But she was pretty wicked in her letters — very gossipy, saying the most awful things about people.”
To bring some modernity to “Sense and Sensibility,” Tucker does away with backdrops and puts wheels on all of the furniture, so it can be put in motion whenever the need arises. When a young woman flees the social judgments of early-18th-century England, she scoots away on a chair, only to be pursued by the gossips on their own mobile seating. And class distinctions are implied: When the sisters converse in their small, middle-class cottage, they sit close together, and when they visit their step-brother’s immense mansion, they sit farther apart.
“What’s wonderful about Elinor and Marianne, according to a lot of my female friends, is that Austen gets every woman in those two characters,” Tucker says. “In our version, I think Elinor is funny. There’s this great moment when some wine is brought in to comfort Marianne, but she’s too upset to drink it, so Elinor wolfs down the wine herself. But Elinor’s also an anchor. With so much zaniness onstage, there’s a stable place we can come back to.”
During 1995-1996, when all six of Austen’s full-length novels emerged as theatrical or television movies, one of the best was the Ang Lee-directed, Emma Thompson-written “Sense and Sensibility.” Such adaptations proved how effectively Austen’s stories could be dramatized, but the theater community was surprisingly slow to walk through the door opened by the cinema.
One day when she was in a car with Bedlam co-founder Andrus Nichols, Hamill burst out, “I think I want to adapt ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ ”
“I’d been an actress for a long time,” she recalls. “When you’re an actress, you sometimes get great roles, but three-quarters of the plays are written by men, and there are six times as many great roles for men as for women. . . . How do you create new roles for women in classical theater? You adapt Austen. I bet Andrus $100 that I could write the play in six months, and I didn’t want to lose the money, because I was very poor at the time.”
Hamill, who is also in the cast of the ongoing New York production, knew she couldn’t compete with the movies when it came to evoking the beautiful homes and clothes of the 19th-century aristocracy. But she also knew that theater could accommodate richer language — and more of it.
“The novel is a lot of sitting in living rooms and having seemingly polite conversations with each other,” says Hamill, who is working on an adaptation of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
“But neither Eric nor I were interested in doing a traditional, porcelain teacup ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ I’ve always felt that if you’re going to do a play, make it a play. You dial up the bizarreness, you magnify the emotions.”
Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077.
Dates: Through Oct. 30.