Jane Austen’s characters read each other like novels. They inspect qualities, every human chapter and verse, and sum them up in lists of checks and balances. In Persuasion, Austen writes, “Her manners were open, easy, and decided, like one who had no distrust of herself, and no doubts what to do; without any approach to coarseness, or any want of good humor.” This, along with four more lines, describes Mrs. Croft, a minor figure.
They read each other, but since few dare reveal feelings openly, must often base impressions on scant evidence, a gesture, the hint of a blush. As landed aristocrats often obsessed with rank and decorum, they exist from the neck up, with appearances thick as marble masks, which is why they spend so much time trying to sound each other’s depths.
Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion, seeks the truth in flaws. “She felt she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.”
Some of Austen’s best writing works this way. It starts with a close-up, then peers even closer: What did that look, held a split second too long, mean? Will eyes meet? Fingers touch? Into these questions, Austen packs tension and drama.
Persuasion begins with a misreading. Much against Anne Elliot’s instincts, her father, older sister Elizabeth, and guardian Lady Russell persuaded 19-year-old Anne to break off her engagement with Frederick Wentworth. Why? He had everything but lucrative prospects. On hearing the news, he exploded. And she spun inward, becoming a spinster-in-waiting and a marginal figure in her eccentric family. Now she’s 27, and Captain Wentworth, decorated officer of the Royal Navy and man of nouveau means, suddenly returns. But will he woo one of the flighty Musgrove sisters or cross the gulf and renew with Anne what never went away?
In the process, Austen asks: who suffers more, or longer, men or women? No matter which you choose, the book will “persuade” a more balanced view. (The title was posthumous: Austen died tragically of Addison’s Disease in 1816, age 41. Her fourth brother, Harry, chose it.)
Jon Jory’s new adaptation, at OnStage Playhouse, feels more like an early draft than a world premiere. The script shows the difficulties of converting a novel to the stage. How do you take a story, told by one of English literature’s most engaging narrators, and transpose it into “two hours traffic on a stage”? Jory’s answer is “traffic.” Scenelets, at least 25 in the first act, snippet out information. It’s clear he knows and loves the novel, since he tries to honor so much of it. But, overall, the story unfolds like a Cliff’s Notes, condensed version. Some scenes take longer to set up — loading in chairs and tables, clustering actors, changing the lights — than to play.
Austen’s characters exist almost exclusively in leisure time (and in “a long, uneventful residence in one country circle”). Few work, and even fewer move with anything resembling haste: their top speed maxes out at a stroll. Presenting them in quick, cinematic takes cuts against their way of life. (In future productions, a revolving stage might solve some, though not all, of these problems.) Also missing, along with Austen’s engaging narration, are the brief, heightened moments that charge a nuance with drama.
OnStage’s technical elements are an uneven mix. Though Chad Oakley’s lighting is a mite too somber, Carol Whaley’s period costumes are quite good. And Mark Robertson’s stone-walled set has its uses, in particular for the famous Cobb fiasco, where Louisa (a nicely giddy Laura Bohlin) leaps into Wentworth’s unsuspecting arms (though the fall itself takes place offstage).
Austen asks us to lean forward, attend to microclues. But instead of subtlety, many in the cast opt for overbroad portrayals — Larry E. Fox’s hypereccentric Sir Walter, for example, and Holly Stephenson’s Mary Elliot — that leave no room for close inspection. Though his final scene with Anne is touching, Chris Renda’s Captain Wentworth is too young and hardly a naval hero in the Napoleonic Wars. Others play obviously for laughs, which could be funnier if done with more restraint.
While most of the cast prefer the surface, Kym Pappas’s excellent Anne begins deep within. Austin took a risk with this character. At 27, Anne is “past the bloom of youth” and far too old for a romantic lead. Plus, she violates the first rule of fiction: she doesn’t change. She’s “constant.” Pappas deftly portrays Anne’s intelligence, extreme sensitivity, and emotional blooming. Along the way, her eyes give a master class on suggesting minute details and feelings she fights to repress. ■
Persuasion, by John Jory, based on the novel by Jane Austen
OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Directed by Carla Nell; cast: Kym Pappas, Chris Renda, Jennie Olson-Six, Kaly McKenna, Bryant Hernandez, Jewell Karinen, Laura Bohlin, Holly Stephenson, Larry E. Fox, John Antonov, Jennifer Berry, Tom Kilroy, Philip John, Justine Hince, Joel Castellaw, Loie Gail, Ryan Martinez, Penny Dunning; scenic design, Mark Robertson; costumes, Carol Whaley; lighting, Chad Oakley; sound, Carla Nell
Playing through December 22; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-422-7787