Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility

Written by Kate Hamill, Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen, Staging and Direction by Eric Tucker, Choreography by Alexandra Beller; Scenic Design, John McDermott; Costume Design, Angela Huff; Lighting Design, Les Dickert; Sound Design, Alex Neumann; Associate Director, Aubrey Snowden; Production Stage Manager, Brett Anders

CAST (in alphabetical order): Lisa Birnbaum, Jessica Frey, Nigel Gore, Katie Hartke, Maggie Adams McDowell, James Patrick Nelson, Violeta Picayo, Ryan Quinn, Benjamin Russell, Jamie Smithson

Performances through January 14 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or

American Repertory Theater has a great show for the holiday season that has nothing to do with Christmas, Chanukah, or winter, for that matter. However, for sheer entertainment and a fun factor that suggests Fezziwig's party on steroids, Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility is just the ticket. Kate Hamill's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic woman-centered novel is the right story at the right time, honing in on the lives of the Dashwood sisters as they navigate the treacherous shoals of 18th century society in England. Without a hint of didacticism, Hamill lays bare the challenge in choosing between sense and sensibility in an era when a disenfranchised woman had only her reputation to rely upon.

For those who have no prior history with either the Austen novel or a film version, Director Eric Tucker and Bedlam's production is accessible to any and all, rolling out the story in their inimitable style. The operative word here is roll, as the minimal set pieces are on wheels and are continually moved back and forth across the stage. Oftentimes, the actors are seated on a chair, sofa, or window frame when it is manipulated by another actor to its next destination on stage, or sometimes when they just give it a good shove to send it careening across the open floor. As lively and kinetically as some scenes play out, there are corresponding moments of stillness and seriousness, always drawing our attention to the import of conversations between the characters and the beauty of Austen's language.

Bedlam's ensemble cast expertly conveys the emotional depth of those words, while simultaneously embracing the spirit of play that is their stock in trade. This is abundantly clear in the opening and closing scenes when they perform dances by choreographer Alexandra Beller, when they ignore the fourth wall to address members of the audience directly, and when some of the actors transform back and forth between roles with a noticeable twinkle in their eyes. On opening night, Jamie Smithson was a crowd favorite jumping between the awkward Edward Ferrars and his soused, boorish brother Robert. Both Lisa Birnbaum and Katie Hartke changed personalities on the fly, as it were, when playing the Steele sisters one moment and Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, respectively, the next. Also dual- or triple-cast are jocular Ryan Quinn (Sir John Middleton/Servant/Doctor), dashing Benjamin Russell (John Willoughby/John Dashwood), and James Patrick Nelson (Colonel Brandon/Thomas/Lady Middleton), solemn and distinguished, with a resonant manner of speech.

Maggie Adams McDowell (Elinor Dashwood) and Jessica Frey (Marianne Dashwood) are the devoted sisters at the heart of the story, each of them embracing an emotional identity that could not be more opposite from the other. Elinor maintains steady control of her feelings and behavior at all times, while Marianne embodies the new sensibility of the era, freely expressing her feelings and vulnerabilities. Youngest sister Margaret (Violeta Picayo) is a work in progress, but seems likely to follow in Marianne's footsteps unless greater maturity tames her natural inclinations. Their mother (Birnbaum) is consumed by guaranteeing their prospects for a good marriage since their father died and left them with nary a farthing. Good-natured, larger-than-life Mrs. Jennings (the marvelous Nigel Gore) is a gossip with a heart of gold who may play a role in helping the Dashwood dames find the men of their dreams.

At its core, Sense & Sensibility is a love story, filled with drama, intrigue, humor, and heart. The characters are three-dimensional, accessible, and recognizable to us, even though the novel was written over two centuries ago. Austen shared with Shakespeare the ability to craft stories of a universal nature, populated with timeless characters, that somehow resonate on and on, with no expiration date. We view them through the lens of 2017 and measure them against our own experiences, and they are capable of withstanding those tests. In this historic moment when woman are marching to the fore and demanding to be heard, the Dashwood sisters are reminders of how long the fight has been forming, and Jane Austen is a worthy standard-bearer, even now.

Photo credit: Ashley Garrett (The Cast of Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman