Stage

Sense & Sensibility is Charming and Comedic at 4th Wall Theatre Co.

David Gow, Faith Fossett, Christy Watkins and Amy Mire in Sense & Sensibility.
David Gow, Faith Fossett, Christy Watkins and Amy Mire in Sense & Sensibility. Photo by Gabriella Nissen

Years ago, in a middle school English class, we read Summer of My German Soldier. Instead of an essay, our teacher, younger than most and cooler by far, tasked us with making a soundtrack for the book using pop songs of the day. To give you a hint of what was popular at the time, Alanis Morrissette dominated my playlist.

Watching 4th Wall Theatre Company’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamill, I thought about that assignment. I realized that Hamill is a cool teacher and we (the audience) were sitting in the best kind of class.

But first, an introduction to Austen’s story.

Welcome to late 18th century England, where the death of a family’s patriarch, such as one Mr. Dashwood, leaves his family – wife, Mrs. Dashwood, and daughters Elinor, Marianne and Margaret – practically destitute, as their estate is passed down to Mr. Dashwood’s son from his first marriage because, well, men. Mr. Dashwood did ask his son, John, to provide for his sisters, but John’s wife Fanny persuades him not to, arguing they need the money for their own son’s future. They don’t – they’re rich – but John goes along with it and his father’s second family is officially homeless and penniless. Though it’s an aristocratic type of poor, that’s still bad news in Austen’s gossipy Regency era-ish setting. Elder daughters Elinor, the sensible one, and Marianne, the romantic one, are hoping to find husbands but in this world, it seems no amount of intelligence, beauty or piano playing can compete with generational wealth.

If there’s one thing you can credit Hamill with – actually, there are many things, but we’ll start this one: With wit and a keen sense of playfulness, Hamill sure has a knack for making Jane Austen accessible. Hamill’s approach to Sense & Sensibility is not only clever, but lovingly faithful in spirit. So much so that it seems that Janeites and neophytes alike would have little to complain about. The bones of Austen’s text are never lost under the lighthearted approach to the story, one that leaves room for all manner of shenanigans and anachronistic song choices – and there are all manner of shenanigans and anachronistic song choices in this show.

4th Wall’s production is bustling, controlled chaos helmed by director Kim Tobin-Lehl. It’s a wonder that not once did someone smack into another cast member, but it’s a testament to Tobin-Lehl’s vision for the production. Though the action never stops and there’s often more than one thing to look at, the show is perfectly staged. Nothing gets lost in the hubbub. Of course, a lot of credit, a perfect 10 I’d say, goes to the cast for execution.

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Nick Farco, Luis Galindo, Timothy Eric, Philip Lehl, Christy Watkins and Skyler Sinclair in Sense & Sensibility.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen

Putting the “sense” in the story is Christy Watkins’s Elinor. Oldest sister Elinor is level-headed and practical, but in Watkins’s hands you can also see the effort Elinor puts into maintaining her composure. While she may tend toward practicality, her eyes show her vulnerability bubbling just beneath the surface and the tenuous grip she sometimes has on her poise. In contrast, Faith Fossett’s Marianne knowingly and openly wears her heart on her sleeve. Marianne is loving but childish, and it hurts to see her wilt after heartache.

Rounding out the Dashwood family are an absolutely sparkling Skyler Sinclair as adorably exuberant Margaret, prone to equally cute flashes of youthful indignance, and rangy Amy Mire, maternally wide-eyed as Mrs. Dashwood and something else entirely as Anne Steele.

Then there are the suitors: Edward Ferrars, played as endearingly clumsy and well-meaning by Nick Farco (who briefly doubles as Edward’s drunkenly gesticulating, personal-space-invading brother Robert). The noble and compassionate Colonel Brandon, who is a steady, solid presence in the hands of Timothy Eric. And John Willoughby, a louse that David Gow makes annoyingly pitiable.

Rachael Logue is the manipulative Fanny Dashwood and oblivious Lucy Steele. Luis Galindo does yeoman's work as John Middleton, and Philip Lehl is a scene-stealer as the determined (and tale-telling) Mrs. Jennings.

As an ensemble, the cast is the definition of “everything everywhere all at once.” Everyone (with, I believe, the exception of the two older Dashwood sisters) take their turns – sometimes as scenery, sometimes as dogs, sometimes as a chorus and, most effectively, as eyes and ears. Members of the cast are ever presently eavesdropping on the Dashwoods, attentively peeking out from behind chairs one minute and with their little faces pressed against non-existent glass spying the next. They gossip with the audience, travel through aisles, and are pretty much always moving themselves and set pieces.

The set, designed by Ryan McGettigan, proves to be uber functional, Leah Smith’s costumes perfectly hint at the time period, and everything looks good under Christina Giannelli’s dynamic lighting choices.

You could go see Sense & Sensibility to find out what happens to Elinor and Marianne. Do they find love and, if so, with who? That’s a great reason to go and you wouldn’t be disappointed in the story. It is Jane Austen, after all. But really, you should go to find out how and where The Jackson 5 come into play, and what part of the story gets slow-mo’ed and what part gets a fast forward. You should see the dexterity of these actors, starring in a classic told in fresh and quirky way that includes a musical interlude set to “Uptown Funk.” I mean, that’s not something you see every day.   

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through December 23 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For more information, visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $28-$63.

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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.