Pulled from ordinary situations, Jane Austen’s final play, “Persuasion” was deftly presented by seasoned actors from the Livermore Shakespeare Festival (LSF), under the direction of the talented Mary Ann Rodgers and performed at the verdant Wente Estate Winery and Tasting Room in Livermore.
As with any outdoor performance, the plot, characters and scene setting obviously play a big role; however, the scenic vineyard and the unique raised, circular stage with access for actors from four radiating entry boardwalks increased audience engagement by providing unrestricted viewing from any angle. The period costumes and language, the sometimes rapid movements on stage certainly fully commanded audience’s rapt attention. Tasty bites of pizza with interesting toppings, along with dainty sips of Wente’s Reisling (among other offerings for sale) added to the ambience.
If one really needed to find faults, we can blame the chilly evening, but most viewers were well prepared and tucked cozily in blankets during the performance. I hope the adrenaline of the actors kept them warm! As it was a Family Night Preview, the audience had its fair share of all age groups…children…..young, and not so young, parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents, equally delighted to be bonding and sharing this enjoyable evening.
To set the stage, in the networking hour before the performance, to use Silicon Valley parlance, several costumed persons mingled and engaged with the audience and showcased the Jane Austen Society of Northern America. A charming older couple, dressed as residents of Uppercross, a locale in the play, regaled us with stories of how the costume was put together as part of their participation in the Greater Bay Area Costume Guild,
Sufficiently charmed by these interactions, we were fully prepped for being swept up in the old English plot and characters of “Persuasion”. This being one of Jane Austen’s last play, published posthumously in 1818, reflects the growing maturity of her body of works. Of course, like all her other works, this too focuses on marital situations and happy endings. She subtly brings out the flawed characters of the titled upper class, and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in with great wit, humor and satire.
In a conversation with Jennifer LeBlanc, who adapted the original for the stage, she emphasized how important it was to preserve the most Jane Austen-esque parts alive, and display the humor in the human condition and the flaws of the characters. One of those is, Sir Walter Elliot, endearingly played by Malcolm Rodgers, who, along with his daughters, is forced to rent out his family’s ancestral home, Kellynch Hall because of his wasteful ways, and move to Bath to keep expenses under control.
The renters turn out to be Admiral and Mrs. Croft, who,meet the high society standards of Sir Elliot. Mrs. Croft’s brother happens to be the Captain Frederick Wentworth, commandingly acted by Patrick Kelly Jones, the man that Sir Elliot’s daughter, Anne had fallen in love with eight years ago, but chose not to marry after being persuaded by Mrs. Russell, a trusted family friend that he did not rank high enough in society of the time to be worthy of her.
Majority of the action in this play takes place in the towns of Bath, Lyme and Uppercross, conjuring up images of the charming and rustic English countryside, although no actual visuals could be presented in the outdoor venue. Anne visits her sister at Uppercross, the impulsive Mary Musgrove, acted by the personable Caitlin Everson, and interacts with her sisters in law, Louisa and Henrietta.
Inevitably, Captain Wentworth, upon returning from the sea visits his sister, Mrs. Croft at Bath and runs into Anne. However, she finds him paying copious attention to the Musgrove sisters, charmingly played by Deborah Lagin as Louisa, and Wenona Truong as Henrietta. In fact, when Louisa takes a bad fall on a trip to Lyme, he stays back to nurse her back to health, leaving Anne fretting.
Meanwhile in Bath, Anne, receives the sole attention of Mr. Elliot, the rakishly handsome Thomas Gorrebeek, a cousin of hers, and an heir to the baronetcy; who has reconciled differences with his uncle and her father, Sir Walter and apologized. As the plot thickens, Anne learns of Mr. Elliot’s past mistreatment of her old school friend, Mrs. Smith, who reveals that he does not have honorable intentions with regards to wanting to marry Anne.
His motives seem to be about ensuring a path to the baronetcy through marital alliance with Anne, as he fears that Sir Walter might marry Mrs. Clay, with whom he spends a lot of time, and sire an heir.
In typical Jane Austen maneuvers, both Musgrove sisters announce their engagements, Henrietta to a cousin of hers, and Louisa to a Captain Benwick, who happened to be also staying at Lyme. Anne receives the news with much relief, as now, unencumbered by the spurned Mr. Elliot, she shows real interest in being reunited with Captain Wentworth, who has, by now become quite jealous of Mr. Elliot’s lavish attentions towards Anne.
In a final twist, the star crossed and separated lovers unite after Captain Wentworth expresses his undying love for Anne that has endured during the separation of the past eight years, and proposes to her again. Fortuitously, he has also become a much richer man in these years, and is included in the social circles of Sir Walter’s upper class gentry. The cartoonish aristocracy and their misguided upper class sensibilities is the perfect foil for both Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot.
Lily Narbonne, as the leading lady, Anne Elliot had the tremendous responsibility on her nubile shoulders, of depicting a mature woman (almost twenty seven years of age), who once shunned her engagement on grounds of snobbery and was swayed by elders whose wishes she respected.
However the decision torments her for eight long years, in which her heart betrays the real feelings she continues to harbor for her Captain Wentworth. The conflict of reuniting with her jilted lover and accepting her true feelings with joy is emoted sweetly by the couple, free to express their tender feelings once again towards each other. As the intended couple is reengaged in the end, it is not without the ironic observations of the comical nature of the titled, and their constraints.
The Elliots and Musgroves, act comically foolish in their attempts to gain the friendship of a Mrs. Dalrymple, a woman of some social consequence; just as Sir Elliot fawns over personas who command respect through title, even if it were a scheming Mr. Elliot; the family shuns Mrs. Smith who has fallen on hard times as another peek into the barely disguised snobbery.
In the end, Jan Austen succeeds in revealing the very human flaws of all her characters, whether they be of guile, deceit, conceit or regret of past decision, and eternal hope. We expect LSF will continue to delight audiences with such productions in years to come.