A sensible new production at OPRF's Little Theater

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By Doug Deuchler

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If you're not a Jane Austen fan, don't be scared away. The current production of Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility playing at the Little Theater of Oak Park and River Forest High School for one more weekend is not some stuffy BBC drawing room melodrama. It's a delightful new spin on the 200-year-old classic, full of vigorous movement and comic vitality.

Director Annie Slivinski has imaginatively staged this charming female-centric play. Sixteen actors and plenty of tech people have put together a very spirited production.

Kate Hamil's smart, funny adaptation provides a fresh female voice, conveying a solid feminine perspective not always found in other mountings of this work. We follow the pretty but poor Dashwood sisters — clear-headed but reserved Elinor (Sophia Zinger), the older sibling, and impetuous, effusive Marianne (Anika Waco) — after their father's sudden death leaves them destitute and socially vulnerable. 

19th-century people were preoccupied with real estate, income, class and reputation. So how will the Dashwood girls, both at the age to marry, land suitable husbands without dowries? Women of that era were nobody unless they married well. Money was the driving force behind most couplings.

Although there are 46 different scene changes, all set pieces and furnishings, from sofas to doorways, are on wheels, quickly rolled on and off by the actors. Chandeliers drop and then disappear when no longer needed. There is no pause for stagehands to make all these shifts. The rapid changes are delightfully imaginative. A rolling piano, for instance, becomes a stagecoach with one of the cast members acting as a spirited horse. 

Windowed trellises moving on casters allow gossips to peer in and observe the leading characters. A veritable Greek chorus of gossipy-eavesdroppers remind us of the social pressures of that period. 

The widow Dashwood (Maeve Doody) and her girls find themselves torn from the landed gentry lifestyle they've always known and are forced to live on a meager income in a remote cottage supplied by a distant relative. 

The backdrop features a dozen or so framed landscape paintings, providing a glimpse of the British countryside.

Several very lively scenes of Regency era dancing add vitality.

Lily Alter is hilarious as Mrs. Jennings, a vivacious widow relentlessly seeking to encourage suitable marriages among young people. Solid and kind Colonel Brandon, considered a brooding old bachelor at 35, is nicely played by Drew Krueger. He's attracted to Marianne but, due to his age, is discounted as a suitor.

Many of the 16 cast members play several roles with fine comic timing.

The period costumes — empire gowns and cutaway coats — are designed by Jeffrey G. Kelly. His assistant is Sean Lane. Make-up and hair is by Patricia Cheney. Christopher Scholtens is the scenic designer. Kevin Geoffards created the expressive lighting. 

The stage manager is Nadirah Muhammed.

I am aware that directors must work with the pool of people who show up and try out for their shows. But I was surprised to see an entirely white cast for this production (students of color are among the tech and production staff and crew). 

This production of Sense and Sensibility is bouncy and enjoyable. There is one intermission. The cast received a standing ovation on opening night. 

Two performances remain this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students.

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