Comedy of Manners

In Emma, A.D. Players' stylishly elegant production of Jane Austen's sublime comedy of manners, actress Sarah Cooksey portrays Austen's heroine with astonishing fidelity — and an abundance of felicity. As an onstage panel is pushed aside, the very embodiment of Austen's description of Emma steps out from behind it: "handsome, clever, and rich, with a...happy disposition, [Emma Woodhouse] seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence...with very little to distress or vex her." Cooksey is blessed, too, with a physical resemblance to the author herself, as drawn in an 1810 watercolor by her sister Cassandra, 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 à la grecque. In looks and style, Cooksey blooms like a flower out of county Surrey's richest soil. As in the novel, she dominates all scenes, and the entire play revolves around her and her ill-conceived matchmaking.

Cooksey is not alone, and A.D. Players' patented and adept ensemble is once again in full sail. Everyone plays on the same level, and if their accents bounce about like a tottering carriage on an unpaved country lane, at least their characterizations stay put. (On opening night, the lace hem of Cooksey's dress tore loose and she was hobbled for a moment, until, with ladylike aplomb and gentility — the same qualities Emma possesses — she gathered the side of the offending garment and held it ever so slightly above the floor away from any temptation to trip, and carried on with assurance. Emma would have shown the same resolve.)

One of literature's most enduring masterpieces, Emma (1815) contains the entire world, although the action occurs exclusively in the village of Highbury. The world that Austen paints, one of confined domesticity, is nonetheless vivid for her use of pastels instead of bold swathes of primary colors. 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), of questionable parentage, who loves a farmer. He's not good enough for her, 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 passions, 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.

Throughout, Emma is poised and witty, yet she constantly makes a mess of things. She sincerely wants to help and her heart is gold, but every affair she touches turns sour. She's her own comedy of errors. Stalwart and patient neighbor Mr. Knightly (Craig Griffin) constantly upbraids her for her intemperate interference in the lives of others, but she's mute to his warnings and blithely turns her sights on debonair Frank Churchill (Jason Hatcher), visiting from London. He's the catch for Harriet. But he falls for Emma, too! And she rather likes the attention. What she learns about herself, about love, is the real plot of Emma and the reason Austen will always speak to future readers.

The literate adaptation by Jon Jory, former artistic director of Louisville's Actors Theatre, pares all extraneous characters and hones the action to the novel's three defining moments: finding a suitable husband for Harriet; the disquieting visit of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax (Natalie Lerner), Emma's only rival; and Emma's dawning awareness that she may be in love.

Designed by Mark A. Lewis, the physical production is as sleek and clean as Jory's adaptation. Four receding frames of gilt and lapis anchor the visual (pictures within pictures), while three rolling panels, with wispy landscapes on one side and domestic scenes of curtains and fireplace on the other (not quite as effective), break apart and re-form as they introduce a character or set the appropriate scene. A few accent pieces of Regency furniture convey place, while the costumes by Donna Southern Schmidt are sumptuously period-proper. Lee Walker, one of A.D. Players' most versatile talents, polishes Austen's cameo with judicious, subtle directing and equally subdued lighting design, always allowing Miss Austen to have the last word.

Emma's comeuppance, as it were, occurs after the picnic when she uncharacteristically cuts down poor befogged Miss Bates (Patty Tuel Bailey). Mr. Knightly berates her for such insensitivity, causing her to cry for the first time. Emma realizes she has behaved horribly, and it's one more step toward her final redemption. At home, after her doddering father (Ric Hodgin) has retired to make her a soothing toddy, she swoons to the floor as if in atonement. It's Emma's only act of complete piety. The scene lasts only a moment, but the rich amber lighting with its window-frame silhouette falling over her shoulders, the precise placement of Cooksey's figure on the ground supported by the chair, and the pictorial costuming make this one of the grandest theatrical visuals of the season. It's pure Austen — as is all of A. D. Players' enriching Emma.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover