Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
There is a reason why Jane Austen is so enduringly popular. Well, there are several. One is that she managed so perfectly to capture the class and sexual struggles of her time. Another is that her characters are always compelling. Yet another is that the plots of her novels reach far beyond the standard for “romantic” literature. And all of these and more are why Austen has been enjoying a kind of renaissance for the past couple of decades. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the works of Jane Austen are genuine, entertaining, and funny while they are also at times scathing in their view of her world. But that’s why we love them. And it’s why Kate Hamill has made a name for herself adapting Austen to the stage. Her latest adaptation, Mansfield Park, is now premiering at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. As with all of Austen, it is a play about love and class divisions. And Hamill, who does take liberties with the plot of the novel, makes the most of both of these elements despite a few issues.
Much of Austen’s work centers on the “poor relation,” a term that is certainly, um, relative in books like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the previous two that Hamill adapted. In these books, the lead women are only poor in comparison to the vast wealth around them and to which they aspire, and they always have a chance of sharing in that wealth. Mansfield Park is different: Fanny Price is not merely a “poor relation”; she is quite bluntly poor. Austen is careful to show scenes of her impoverished family’s life, and the word “squalor” comes to mind. When ten-year-old Fanny is sent to live with her cousins at the “finest house in Northampton,” we understand why her parents have sent her. To Austen’s credit, even though the occupants of Mansfield Park are by and large awful people and treat her poorly, nothing is whitewashed regarding her original homelife: this is not the idyllic poor, but the ugly poor, with an overworked mother, a drunken father, and nowhere near enough money for a family of eight kids (one has died) to live on.
One of the better things that Hamill does in her adaptation is to keep this dichotomy clear. Though Fanny herself (Kayla Carter, recently seen in Writers Theatre’s Smart People) has been refined here into the nearly perfect woman she protests that she is not, there is never even a hint that she’d have been better off staying in Portsmouth with the Prices. True, she might have found more natural love there (especially from brother William and sister Susie (Curtis Edward Jackson and Anu Bhatt, each of whom plays multiple roles). But money talks in Austen’s world as it does in ours. Once she has lived at the great house for a decade, it’s difficult to imagine she could ever permanently revert to the kind of ramshackle poverty she finds on a visit to her family even once she has figured out that she cannot remain in Mansfield Park. Yet Fanny here is so perfect a person that it apparently never even occurs to her that, without Mansfield Park, she has no future.
The great problem with the great house is that it is built on a foundation of slave trade money, a dark family secret that Fanny discovers. So there are multiple moral conundrums here: can she remain in a house such as this one? Should anyone who has morals? Does that include her cousin Edmund (Gabriel Ruiz), with whom she is in love? Can he become the preacher he has always wanted to be if he does remain, or would he be living a lie? Should Fanny take the offer of marriage from the wealthy cad Henry Crawford (Nate Burger), who seems to be ready to reform his ways for her? Should she stop Edmund from marrying Henry’s sister (Hamill, doing double-duty as an actress as well as playwright), who is every bit as bad as her brother ever was?
Ah, the problems of an Austen heroine.
As to Northlight Theatre’s production, director Stuart Carden has put together a great cast and some clever, fun means of effecting scene changes. (On a Yu Shibagaki Taylor set meant to show us the essence of the opulent house, actors glide in with and even on pieces of furniture, making the changes themselves a joy to watch.) And Carden gets some outstanding performances from his actors, though the nature of any book adaptation, be it film or stage, is that the more subtle nuances of character are often lost and here several characters are almost caricatures of far richer Austen creations. This is a fault not of the direction or the acting but of the adaptation itself, which does shortchange them. When you have an adult character whose every utterance seems to be an exclamation of childlike glee, you might wonder if you could have framed him a bit better. When more than one character suffers from similar one-note portrayals and you are not writing a farce, you might think about reworking them all. Not that some characters don’t work well that way: Mrs Bertram (Heidi Kettenring), for example, is pretty one-note even in Austen’s book. (Kettenring’s Mrs. Norris is a wonderful antagonist for young Fanny.)
Still, despite (and occasionally because of) these flaws, Hamill’s script does the one thing it most needs to do: makes us care about Fanny. And Carter’s performance couldn’t be more winning. She is even marvelous occupying the stage by herself. Ruiz also plays a fully three-dimensional character in Edmund, who finds himself falling for Mary much to Fanny’s chagrin. Burger’s Henry is also a great creation: yes, he begins as a cad, but we can sense a real change in him, so much so that a late knavish action actually comes as a surprise. Another terrific characterization is young Susie. Bhatt brings real depth to a role that might have been a simple comic turn. And even Mary has enough personal contradictions that she remains fascinating and somewhat unfathomable, thanks to a layered performance by Hamill.
This is not a perfect Austen adaptation, but it does maintain a sense of the sensibilities of her work. And that is mostly due to the central performance of Carter, whose internalized pain is palpable throughout and whose late outburst against her uncle (Mark Montgomery) is simply wonderful. Hamill has made far more here of the slaving aspect of the story than Austen did in her novel, but it’s fine: it makes the needle move more sharply in the play’s moral compass. And anyway the fact is that even less than perfect Austen is still some of the best entertainment you can get, no matter the medium. The actors here give it their all, Carden keeps it all moving, and both the joy and pathos play clearly. It’s well worth the trip to Skokie to see this play. As a lifelong Austen fan, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Mansfield Park may not be the most enjoyable place to grow up, but it certainly is a good way to spend a chilly evening.
Mansfield Park is a Northlight Theatre production now playing at 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, through Jan 13. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.