Jane Austen’s classic novel delivers literary flair to stage

“Sense and Sensibility” is based on Jane Austen’s first published novel, which she wrote at age 19. Photo milwaukeerep.com

Jane Austen began writing what would become “Sense and Sensibility” when she was only 19 years old. As she first penned the story of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, it must have been unfathomable that the two sisters’ story would still be widely popular more than 200 years later.

But despite the odds, Austen’s work continues to have ardent fans and a continued presence in a pop culture, enamored with the glamour, romance and wit of her work. Austen’s novels have found themselves the topic of countless adaptations including film, miniseries and even bizarre spin-offs like 2009’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

Austen’s work will once again be revisited as the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre brings the author’s first published novel, “Sense and Sensibility” to the stage. The 2001 play, adaptated by Mark Healy, will be performed December 11 through January 13 in the the Repertory’s Quadracci Powerhouse.

The story follows the two Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor, who are left penniless after their father’s death. The plot surrounds the sisters’ romantic aspirations and disappointments, struggles with class and run-ins with eccentric characters. But what remains central to Austen’s story is the essential differences between how the sisters approach the world. They are often opposites with divergent desires, temperaments and ways of coping with pain.

“I think everyone identifies with one of the sisters,” said Meaghan Sullivan, who plays the roles of Fanny, Lady Middleton and Lucy Steele in the production. “You are either more of an Elinor or a Marianne. Elinor is more measured and guarded, where Marianne is more outwardly emotional.”

The show takes a traditional approach to the style of the play, though it adds a unique flair.

“The women wear the classic long dresses and beautiful ball gowns that we all picture when we think of Jane Austen, and the men where the suits of the time,” Sullivan said.

The set of the show is also in classic Austen-style, with ornate late 17th-century sitting rooms and ballrooms.

“One of the difficulties with the story is that it changes location so often,” Sullivan said. “But we devised a really clever way to change scenes with just a change in the lights and a flipping of pillows.”

Another creative adaptation to the play is the way the Rep’s ensemble covers the play’s 13 principle roles through only seven actors. There is also original music sung live by members of the cast and an emphasis on the lighter side of Austen’s work.

“Most people don’t remember how funny Jane Austen really was,” Sullivan said. “’Sense and Sensibility’ really is a romantic comedy, but most people only see it as a romance.”

Sullivan, who is returning to the Repertory stage as an alumna of its internship program, plays three characters who bring much of the wit interspersed among the romance. She says that while there is plenty of romance, beautiful dresses and dance scenes that will appeal to fans of increasingly popular BBC period pieces like “Downton Abbey,” the production’s quick pace (only lasting 90 minutes) and comedic elements will give their production a wide appeal for audiences over the holiday season.

This production comes in convenient timing for those planning to take the course on Jane Austen offered by Marquette’s English department next semester. The course has been taught by professor Albert J. Rivero since 1997 and returned this semester, filling up in the first few days of class scheduling. Rivero believes the romance in Austen’s works is partly responsible for this lasting popularity.

“What resonates is the love stories,” Rivero said. “I think there is a lasting appeal to the two love stories in ‘Pride and Predjudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’. They are the Cinderella stories where the young woman without money ends up with the handsome prince.”

But Rivero believes there is more to gain from reading Austen romance.

“Like a lot of her works, there is an irony to the happy ending,” Rivero said. “(‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a warning about the dangers that (the sisters) put themselves in when they think that their lives will have this happy ending, when they are looking to marry as the end all-be-all of life.”

The Rep’s performance promises to be a fun, visually appealing show, allowing audiences to follow generations who have discovered and loved the characters whom one 19-year-old woman first brought to life.