Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Directors – Jason and Lauren Morgan
Stage Manager – Jennifer Stewart
Set Design – Lauren and Jason Morgan
Scenic Design – Lauren Morgan
Master Carpenter – Keith Glenn
Props Designer – Jennifer Stewart and Jean Jeske
Costume Design – Lauren Morgan
Light Design – Bryan Douglas
Choreography – Karen Matheny
Fight Coordinator – Nathan Dibben
Board Operator – Brett Washburn
Anne Elliot – Julie Rhodes
Captain Wentworth – Chris Rothbauer
Sir Walter Elliot – Kim Titus
Elizabeth Elliot – Felicia Bertch
Mary Elliot – Ellena Weber
Lady Russell – Lisa Fairchild
Charles Musgrove – Nathan Dibben
Louisa Musgrove – Savannah Sirkel
Henrietta Musgrove – Samantha Snow
Mrs. Musgrove – Angela Destro
Admiral Croft – Neal Gregory
Mrs. Croft – Nancy Lamb
Walter Elliot – Andrew Manning
Captain Harville – David Johnson
Captain Benwick – Benjamin Bratcher
Mrs. Clay – Karen Matheny
Mrs. Smith – Jessica Colaw
Charles Hayter – Joshua Hahlen
Mr. Shepherd and Surgeon – Delmar H. Dolbier
Reviewed Performance 4/9/2016
Reviewed by Nicole Mulupi, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Ask a Jane Austen fan their opinion of a theatre or movie adaptation of her work, and you are sure to receive a passionate, detailed response about why one or more of the characters just wasn’t right, along with all the reasons the book was “so much better.” In fact, I don’t believe I have ever met a fan who was completely satisfied with any adaptation of her work. And, that is because Jane Austen’s dialogue and characterizations are so engaging that to have to leave any part out is just painful. Nevertheless, the Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production of Persuasion is a charming adaptation that brings Austen’s characters to life and makes you want to go home and read the book again.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion is the story of The Elliot family, who, due to Mr. Elliot’s extravagance and vanity, are forced to rent their family estate, Kellynch Hall, to Admiral and Mrs. Croft and take up residence in Bath until their finances improve. Mrs. Croft, the Admiral’s wife, happens to be the sister of Captain Wentworth, who had been engaged to Anne Elliot seven years prior. But, Anne, under persuasion from her father, her older sister Elizabeth, and her well-intentioned but manipulative godmother, Lady Russell, had broken off the engagement because of Wentworth’s poverty and lack of connections. As her family heads to Bath, Anne is chosen to stay behind at nearby Uppercross Hall for a few months, to help her married-with-children younger sister, Mary Elliot Musgrove. Captain Wentworth, now a distinguished navy captain and a very eligible bachelor, returns to visit his sister, and—presumably—to find a wife. As Wentworth is pursued by the unmarried Musgrove sisters, Anne is left to ponder the past, hardly daring hope for a chance at reconciliation. Persuasion, like all of Austen’s novels, is the story of a woman who must navigate her way through society’s expectations and limitations, to find love and marriage in a world where men pull almost all the strings.
The difficulty with Jon Jory’s adaptation is that there are so many characters and so much going on—especially in the first act—that there is little time for character development. The play feels rushed and jumpy; Act I is little more than a montage of scenes to set the stage for the actual story, which doesn’t really begin until Act II. It serves as a good review for those who’ve read the book, but for audience members who are new to the story, I am not sure they will be able to follow along. Still, Jory’s script does entertain. While the main characters do not get to shine until Act II, Act I is a parade of interesting and humorous supporting characters, with clever dialogue and good acting. Most of the actors have a decent British accent and speak clearly, too, so the dialogue was easy to follow.
Sets, props and costumes were well designed, structurally sound and practical. Because wealth, rank and connections are so important to the story and to understanding the dynamics between characters, it is vital that these things are visually apparent. Lauren Morgan’s tasteful choice of rich, satiny fabrics in the set and furnishings established Kellynch Hall and Uppercross as the wealthy estates they are meant to be, and her scenic painting of the sky provided a lovely backdrop for walks and outdoor scenes. Morgan’s beautiful costume designs were impressively tailored and period appropriate, with class distinctions respected in the materials and colors chosen.
Bryan Douglas’s light design was minimal, but appropriately so for a period piece. Most effective lighting cues included dimming the stage during intimate scenes, and the complete blackout at the end of Act I.
The cast was impressive overall, but Ellena Weber stood out as Mary Elliot, the hypochondriac wife of Charles Musgrove, daughter to Sir Walter and youngest sister to Elizabeth and Anne. Fluttering around like a canary, with a singsong whine and overdramatic flair, Weber was funny and engaging in every scene. Perfectly in character from head to toe, she never just stood delivering lines—her blocking and body language consistently added realism to the performance.
Kim Titus was entertaining as Sir Walter Elliot, the vain patriarch of the Elliot family. Titus was able to inject a bit of childlike charm into his role, which made his character’s constant obsession with pretty people an ongoing source of humor, rather than annoyance.
Lisa Fairchild played Lady Russell, the manipulative family friend and mother-figure to the Elliot girls. Fairchild had the responsibility of driving the plot much of the time, as her character constantly tries (and usually manages) to control everything around her, by putting thoughts into people’s heads and responding as though everything is settled and agreed upon. Fairchild has a great sense of humor. She knew when to milk her lines for laughs and when to take a more serious tone.
As Mr. Shepherd, the very blunt adviser to Sir Walter, Delmar H. Dolbier was an entertaining contrast to the more delicate Lady Russell. Dolbier also played the surgeon in Act II, and he succeeded in portraying a completely different character, with a less dominant posture and gentler temperament than his previous one. I wasn’t completely sure it was the same actor until I checked my program.
Julie Rhodes is Anne Elliot. Rhodes is a beautiful young woman, and she plays an admirable Austen heroine, though not a particularly interesting one. She does not have the facetious wit of an Elizabeth Bennett, for example. But, Persuasion is no Pride and Prejudice, either. Still, Anne Elliot is a relatable and sympathetic character, and Julie Rhodes is lovely and expressive in the role. Her conversations with Benwick were endearing, and her disagreement with Captain Harville over the constancy of man vs. woman was particularly amusing.
Chris Rothbauer was young to be cast as Captain Wentworth. He is tall, well-built and handsome (all great leading-man qualities), but he looks almost a decade younger than his character would be. Rothbauer’s demeanor lacked the hardness and intensity you would expect from a man who had spent seven years in the navy trying to forget the woman he loved. It appeared that the actor tried to hide his youth behind a serious expression, but the character often came off as rather hollow and emotionless, instead. Still, I saw glimpses of Captain Wentworth in Rothbauer here and there throughout the play, and I got a little teary-eyed in his final scene. I also appreciated his obvious irritation and angst as he overheard Anne insisting to Captain Harville that men are quicker to overcome feelings of love than are women. Having read the book, I knew what he was doing and thinking as he sat at his desk writing furiously; so, that scene was gratifying.
The casting of Nancy Lamb as Wentworth’s sister didn’t help with believability (she’s more than twice his age), but I loved her in the role. Lamb’s Mrs. Croft was down-to-earth, genial and appealing.
Admiral Croft was played admirably by Neal Gregory. He and Lamb worked well together, and they really did act as though they had spent a lifetime as companions. A very charming couple.
Savannah Sirkel and Samantha Snow were nearly inseparable as the sisters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove, who compete for Captain Wentworth’s attention. Sirkel and Snow were delightful in the roles. In all their giddiness, impulsiveness and femininity, they provided a sharp contrast to the more modest and cautious Anne.
Joshua Hahlen plays Charles Hayter, the unimpressive suitor who overcomes Henrietta’s infatuation for Wentworth and secures her attachment for himself, instead. Hahlen and Snow are cute together as the newly engaged couple.
Nathan Dibben played Charles Musgrove, the indefatigable husband of Mary Elliot and brother to the Musgrove sisters. His character was full of life and optimism, despite his wife’s constant self-indulgence and whining. Although Dibben was young for the role, his confident assurance that he was, in fact, Charles Musgrove made me forget his age. Dibben is a fine actor, and he brought a sense of authenticity to the scenes at Uppercross.
While at Uppercross, Anne is introduced to Captain Harville and Captain Benwick, friends of Captain Wentworth who are mourning the death of Harville’s sister, who had been engaged to Benwick and died months before. It is this association that takes the Musgroves, Wentworth and Anne Elliot to Lyme Regis, where Harville and Benwick are staying. Benjamin Bratcher is satisfyingly melancholy in the role of the shy, depressed man who befriends Anne over their mutual fondness for poetry. Bratcher’s character is gentle and kind, and his dialogues with Anne help to establish the leading lady as a romantic prospect, and give the audience insight into her character. Benwick seemed to be sincerely cheered by his companionship with Anne, and the scenes with them together maintained an air of authenticity throughout. Similarly, David Johnson perfectly embodied Captain Harville, Wentworth’s generous, unprepossessing friend. Harville is equal in rank to the others, but he wears modest clothes and walks with a limp. Though he is obviously not wealthy, he is noble and generous; it is at his house that Louisa Musgrove stays while she heals after her accident. Johnson played his character with a naturalness that made him wholly likeable and realistic.
Felicia Bertch was strong as Anne Elliot’s bitter older sister, Elizabeth Elliot. Her dryness added both humor and poignancy to her scenes, and even her silences were full of meaning. Bertch communicated an emotional presence full of the pride and bitterness of rejection, but also of the loyalty and sentimentality between sisters.
Andrew Manning played the distant cousin and heir to Kellynch Hall, Walter Elliot. Manning was able to be both charming and arrogant, which made him perfectly believable as the self-seeking suitor of Anne Elliot.
Jessica Colaw played Mrs. Smith, who is responsible for revealing the true character of Walter Elliot. Colaw’s performance was completely enthralling, as her dialogue with Anne drove the play to its climax.
Karen Matheny plays with precision the disingenuous Mrs. Clay, the young widow who plots to attract Sir Walter so that she may marry above her station. She is comical in her flattery of Sir Walter and in her passionate promotion of skin care products, and she is thoroughly annoying in the way she gushes over the Elliots.
As Mrs. Musgrove, the mother of Charles, Henrietta, and Louisa, Angela Destro is amiable, unpretentious and accommodating. She is proud of her family and puts up with her whining daughter-in-law with grace.
In addition to the fabulous group of actors they cast, Jason and Lauren Morgan’s direction makes the most a script that is less than perfect. As is almost always the case, the book is better; however, I applaud Stolen Shakespeare Guild for their commitment in bringing classic works to the DFW stage. SSG’s production of Persuasion provides a wonderful opportunity for theatre lovers to experience great literature, even if it is just the CliffsNotes version. Austen fans will not be disappointed, but they will not be fully satisfied with this little appetizer, either. But, isn’t that the point, anyway? There are far worse things than leaving an audience hungering for more.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild, Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Sanders Theatre, 1300 Gendy Street, Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through April 24, 2016
Performances run Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $16-$20. Tickets can be purchased by calling Theatre Mania at 866-811-4111 or online at http://stolenshakespeareguild.org/