Dear Abbey

Sir Walter Scott wrote that novelist Jane Austen's "exquisite touch ... renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting." Such is the case with her earliest manuscript, Northanger Abbey, about the girlish tribulations of 17-year-old Catherine Morland. And Main Street Theater's production of the novel, adapted for the stage by Matthew Francis, simply glows with the sweet charm of adolescent energy Austen so deftly captures in her novel.

Francis's adaptation is true to the novel. It lifts much of Austen's lovely dialogue intact while pushing the story forward and bringing the internal machinations of Catherine's imagination to the stage.

Though Catherine (Kelli Cousins) can't draw, can't play music and doesn't read serious books, the "almost pretty" heroine is not ordinary. In fact, she has a most passionate imagination fueled by her voracious consumption of romance novels. Murder, mayhem and mad love govern the characters in her books, and Catherine reads, longing desperately for a life filled with drama and mystery.

Of course, her real life is milquetoast in comparison. She lives on a large and comfortable farm in a small, untroubled village. Her mother and father love her, and the poor girl has no difficulties whatsoever. How dreadfully dull!

Thankfully, neighboring matron Mrs. Allen (Claire Hart-Palumbo) comes to her rescue, offering to escort Catherine to the exotic vacation spot of Bath. Thus begins the drama of her teenage dreams made all the better by her novel-fired imagination.

At Bath, Catherine falls into a hand-wringing, heart-stopping crush of love with tall, handsome and ever-so-clever Henry Tilney (Jason Douglas). Douglas's Tilney is every bit the well-spoken, kind-hearted, broad-shouldered hero that Austen is so fond of. He's sexy and smart, and his eyes glitter with a wry, well-bred kind of amusement. He understands the politics of social gatherings. And though he plays the game well, he's fully aware of the fact that most social interaction is, after all, just a game.

Catherine also sparks a friendship with the dark and lovely Isabella Thorpe (Kaytha Coker). Isabella, unlike Tilney, is infatuated with the dissimulating social whirlwind of Bath. The teenaged Catherine adores her friend and believes she has only the best intentions, although we know right off that she's not to be trusted. And everything in Bath seems to be going just as any young girl could hope. Dances, walks in the country and picnics abound.

There are unfortunate moments. John Thorpe (Illich Guardiola), Isabella's boorish and money-grubbing brother, follows Catherine everywhere, insisting she save her dances for him. Guardiola's buffoonish Thorpe is one of the funniest characters in this production. He struts like the biggest cock in the yard, boasting about the bargains he has found, the horses he has whipped and the card games he has won. Poor Catherine is as dutiful as she is true. And she knows that her brother James (Trey Birkhead) is falling in love with Isabella. So Catherine is obliged to dance with Thorpe even if he is the sort of lunkhead who tells his mother that her new hat makes her "look like an old witch" and says to his sister in the street, "You look very ugly."

Then Catherine becomes heartbroken when Tilney disappears from Bath. Her imagination runs wild with anxious anticipation for his return.

One of the truly successful conceits of this production is the way Catherine's inner fancies come to life on stage. All kinds of characters from the novel she's reading appear: cloak-wearing wicked lovers, lascivious women and the most provocative of all, the hysterically funny Annette (also played by Hart-Palumbo). Annette is a naughty, throaty-voiced French maid who lives in Catherine's imagination. Full of drama and gothic ghoulishness, she inspires Catherine into many crazy ideas.

When Tilney finally returns, all is again right in the world. He even invites Catherine home to Northanger Abbey for an extended visit with his family. The big old house, full of dark corners, strange ancient chests and old scrolls of paper, could inspire any creative girl's morbid imagination. Annette springs into animation, urging Catherine to indulge her fancy. Before long, she's believing that the elderly father, General Tilney (Ted Pfister), killed his wife -- or worse: imprisoned her in the forgotten catacombs of the abbey.

All this imagining by Catherine is sweet and funny. Her ordinary life of boyfriends, family and well-meaning neighbors provides delightful comic relief when acted out against the backdrop of her wild imagination. Cousins is charming as the intelligent girl who possesses too wild an imagination. Her Catherine is very good and silly. She is, like so many of Austen's heroines, utterly lovable.

Catherine, of course, learns a thing or two during the play. John and Isabella Thorpe prove to be more terrible than even Catherine could imagine. Their behavior is the ordinary kind that breaks people's hearts rather than the heinous stuff of Catherine's books. Love always wins in the end, but not without a few close calls.

This fine production handsomely translates Austen's pristine storytelling to the stage. Rebecca Udden's direction is full of English reserve and delicious irony. Her actors are perfectly cast. Sarajane Milligan's costumes are smart, as is scenic designer Boris Kaplun's set of gauzy, flowing curtains. Although it's always good to read the book, especially if it's Jane Austen's novel, Main Street's production offers a first-rate alternative.

Northanger Abbey runs through May 23 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, (713)524-6706. $13-$18.


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