The set up: One of literature's most enduring masterpieces, Emma (1815), Jane Austen's sublime comedy of manners, is painted in vivid pastel, not bold swathes of primary color. The world is confined exclusively to the village of Highbury and its constricting domesticity. In early 19th-century England, women who had no inheritance had best find a husband who had, and Austen portrays the lengths -- comic and ironic -- some will go to pay the rent.
The execution: In A.D. Players' stylishly elegant production, actress Sarah Cooksey imbues Austen's heroine with astonishing fidelity. She's the very embodiment of Austen's description: "handsome, clever...with a happy disposition...with very little to distress or vex her." Cooksey is blessed, too, with a physical resemblance to the author herself, and made up to look like her with tendrils of hair curling from under her Regency bonnet, and her slender face offset by an empire gown. Cooksey blooms like a flower out of county Surrey's richest soil.
A daughter of the landed gentry, Emma doesn't need a husband. "I've never been in love," she states with satisfaction, "it's not in my nature." But that doesn't stop her from finding suitable "matches" for others, like new friend Harriet (Abby Bergstrom), who's of questionable parentage and loves a farmer. He's not good enough for you, convinces Emma, who maneuvers prim Highbury rector Mr. Elton (Chip Simmons) toward the pleasant, but dim, Harriet. Of course, Emma's obvious charms whet Elton's passion, which she discovers to her dismay during a secluded carriage ride home. It's the classic "what have I done to deserve this?" scene, and Austen writes the best, and funniest, one of all.
Though Emma is poised and clever, she constantly makes a mess of things. She sincerely wants to help and her heart is of gold, but every affair she touches turns sour. She's her own comedy of errors. She's blind to the loving protests from her patient, stalwart neighbor Mr. Knightly (Craig Griffin), yet she continues to throw unlikely prospects at the dense Harriet.
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Designed by Mark A. Lewis, the physical production is as sleek and clean as Jon Jory's literate adaptation. A few accent pieces of Regency furniture convey place, while the costumes by Donna Southern Schmidt are sumptuously period-proper.
Propelled by Cooksey's grand portrayal and A.D. Players' patented and adept ensemble running on high (Patty Tuel Bailey, Ric Hodgin, Laurie Arriaga, Katherine Hatcher), Austen's immortal masterpiece is summer entertainment at its enriching best.
Through August 28. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. 713-526-2721.