FORT WORTH It is exactly the same. Yet completely different.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s outstanding approach to Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, is very familiar to regular patrons of this company. SSG has been doing an Austen show every season for a while now, and they usually do an excellent job. This is no exception. It reflects the same sensitivity to the material as the others, and same evocative, period look thanks to the outstanding costuming by Lauren Morgan, who, with her husband, Jason, runs this company they co-founded.
But while it may initially seem nothing has changed, a great deal has. Previously, SSG has relied on the adaptations of the Austen novels done by Jon Jory, which are laudable for their ability to more than do justice to the source material. This production, however, uses an adaptation by Jessica Swale. It is also excellent but, obviously, not the same as Jory’s. So even those who have seen previous SSG presentations of this novel should find that this one feels fresh.
More importantly, the cast members are not the usual suspects. In recent seasons, SSG has put together a fine pool of players which it has used consistently. This is a common (and natural) pattern for community theaters, and not an inherently bad thing. The only trap is that it can lead to a certain sameness in a company’s productions.
But out of this production’s cast of 15 actors, 10 are making their SSG debuts. Nearly all of those new players compare quite well with the performers we more commonly see in SSG’s shows.
Indeed, this is one of the most balanced casts this company has assembled. There is not a weak link to be found. Also, thanks to the superb direction by the Morgans, there is an evenness in their characterizations that is striking. They have put together an outstanding ensemble and have everyone on the same page, while also making excellent use of the space and moving things along at just the right pace. All details are covered, right down to the British accents, which are handled with smooth, consistent ease.
If you are not familiar with this Austen tale, don’t sweat it. It’s about a group of related women who are trying to land husbands, but various financial and romantic complications get in the way. So, yes, this one is just like a few other Austen novels.
A distinguishing trait of “Sense and Sensibility” is that it lacks the humor found in such abundance in “Emma,” but it does have the same element of dark mystery that graces “Pride and Prejudice.” Otherwise, only the names have been changed and the 19th-century British stuffiness remains.
Leading the charge in this production are a trio of the newcomers who portray the Dashwood sisters. Samantha Chancellor does an outstanding job as the play’s primary character, Elinor Dashwood. This highly reserved eldest sister is contrasted nicely by Kathleen Smith as the less-uptight middle sister, Marianne. And Heidi Hood is delightful as the youngest Dashwood sibling, Margaret, a budding Charles Darwin who is constantly capturing and scrutinizing any creepy, crawly creatures she can find.
Among the more familiar SSG players, Karen Matheny turns in an excellent performance as the hiss-worthy Fanny Dashwood, the vile wife of the sisters’ half-brother, John Dashwood (Jason Morgan).
Even some of the smallest roles sparkle. Laura Saladino makes an impression in her brief appearances as supporting characters Mrs. Palmer and Miss Grey. And Evan Faris and Laura Jones, playing the couple Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, also make the most of their short time on stage.
The efforts of these players are nicely showcased in a fine, multitasking set designed by Jason Morgan.
So this show is a winner on every front. It takes a story that people love and makes it into theater that can deliver the same levels of enjoyment and admiration. This production is a first-rate example of freshening a recipe without forgetting any of the important ingredients.