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Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” Persuades!

"I am half agony, half hope...I have loved none but you.” Anne Elliot

heroine standing

Photo: IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance

Can seven and a half years be spanned? Ashley Dillard as Anne Elliot

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Adapted for the stage from Jane Austen's novel by Jennifer LeBlanc Directed by Dale McFadden

Wells-Metz Theatre

July 8, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, & 22 at 7:30 pm July 9, 15 and 23 at 2:00 pm, 2017

The IU Summer Theatre offers a stylish production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion directed by Dale McFadden. Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation is a thoughtful one with Austen’s words, dialogue and insights nicely staged. Jane Austen fans in south central Indiana have been well served. Last year’s IU Summer Theatre offered her Sense and Sensibility and the Department of Theatre and Drama recently gave us Pride and Prejudice. Some of this summer’s cast are veterans of all three.

In Persuasion a nineteen year old Anne Elliot is persuaded by her father’s adamant demand and the counsel of her godmother to break her engagement with promising, but improvident Captain Wentworth. Eight years pass. Anne refuses one offer of marriage and her bloom fades. The captain’s fortunes prosper.

Fans of Austen were immediately charmed and reassured in the Wells-Metz Theatre as Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation begins with a nod to the the book as an actor delivers lines from the novel. Jane Austen didn’t live to see Persuasion published. The title came from her brother. She only referred to the manuscript as “The Elliots.”

Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall is a silly self-infatuated widowed baronet played with nicely involved humor by Henry Woronicz. He has three daughters. There’s Elizabeth, Erin Logan, Sir Walter’s ally the beautiful Elliot. Mary, Tara Chiusano, the married comically hypochondriacal Elliot and then Anne, “just Anne,” Ashley Dillard, the mostly ignored Elliot.

Nearby is Uppercross Cottage the home of daughter Mary and her comfortably countryman husband Charles Musgrove, Justino Brokaw and their two rambunctious sons. The Greathouse of Uppercross is home to Charles’ dotting mother Jenny McKnight and his two sisters The energetic Louisa, Julia Klinestiver and the more reticent, but still lively Henrietta, played by Erin Logan when she isn’t playing Elizabeth.

It’s a tribute to Austen’s writing, LeBlanc’s adaptation, McFadden’s direction, and the skills of the actors and the craft of the costumers that the separate households and their characters in Persuasion are nicely and very humanly sketched.  Austen veterans will be reminded and first timers enlightened.  In one neat short scene Anne, as often, is in the middle. She is the confident of Charles telling her that Mary is too stiff with the boys and Mary telling Anne that Charles won’t discipline them. Then in a second round Mary complains that her mother in law feeds them too much cake and the mother in law complains that the boys are so energetic that only cake will calm them down.

Sir Walter has been progressively running up debt at Kellynch Hall to preserve what he believes are the essentials of his life style and position. It’s only with great difficulty that Anne and his attorney, Ryan Claus persuade him to lease the estate and move to a house in the resort city of Bath. At first Sir Walter is dead set against navy men for reasons of pride of place and his own aesthetics. He complains that the opportunities of the war have allowed them to advance beyond the levels of the older landed gentry and the sea duty often leaves them looking rather ugly. The new tenants are Admiral Croft, a more cheerful and robust Henry Woronicz and his wife, the equally cheery Meaghan Deiter.  Sir Walter allows that the Admiral doesn’t look too bad and that his tenancy actually has a nice ring to it.

Meanwhile a trip to the coastal town of Lyme is proposed for the doughty Charles Musgrove, his ever ailing Mary, their boys, his mother and the sisters Louisa and Henrietta. With the moving about of a few tables and chairs on the stage at the Wells Metz, the  sound of the wind blowing and  the cries of sea gulls, you could almost smell the salt air. It’s at Lyme that Anne is once again thrown into the company of the restrained  Captain Wentworth, Grant Goodman. (Last summer Goodman was the even more restrained Colonel Brandon in IU’s Sense and Sensibility.)

The journey to Lyme is in part a pilgrimage for Captain Wentworth to console his friend Captain Benwick, a dark Devin May, on the death of his beloved wife and to visit with longtime friend Captain Harville, Nicholas Jenkins. As the group gets together it seems to Anne’s chagrin that more and more Wentworth is pairing off with the energetic Louisa. Louisa has a bad fall and its Anne who, as usual, is called on to marshal the support and care.

The villains of Persuasion are a cousin, Mr. Eliot played with nice villainy by Jason Craig West and his accomplice and perhaps mistress Mrs. Clay, a weasely Courtney Relya-Spivack. A poor Mr. Eliot had no interest in being associated with the family, but a newly widowed and wealthy one is fixed on marrying Anne while Mrs. Clay dallies with Sir Walter.

During the care of Louisa, she and the grieving Captain Benwick fall in love. One of Persuasion’s great scenes is the moment when Anne learns that is it Benwick and not her Wentworth who are to be married. Ashley Dillard’s tour de force of mixed emotions and joy is worth the evening’s price of admission. This doesn’t mean that Anne and Wentworth are reconciled and their coming together is an eloquent feature of the novel and of the play.

Jennifer LeBlanc’s graceful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion directed by Dale McFadden joins Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost in repertory at IU’s Summer Theatre with performances through July 23rd. The flexible scenic design is by Alana Yurczyk. Attractive true to the period costumes are by Katie Cowan Sickmeier. Lighting is by Toni Stoeri. Sound design creation and tasteful interlude selections are by CC Conn.

At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker

George Walker

While completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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