Enjoyable BYU stage adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Persuasion'

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 2:52 p.m. MDT

Melanie McKay (Mary Musgrove) and Ben Isaacs (Charles Musgrove) give charming performances in "Persuasion," through April 1 at BYU.

BYU

“JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION,” BYU Theatre Department, through April 1, dates and times vary, Pardoe Theatre, 801-422-4322 or byuarts.com/tickets.

“Persuasion” is perhaps Jane Austen’s most romantic novel, centering on postponed but enduring love.

As in the celebrated author’s other works, the story quietly emerges through the daily lives of its intimately connected characters. Our heroine isn’t a narrator, but we see through her eyes.

Adapting a book with much narrative description but less dialogue and action is a daunting duty to undertake. Melissa Leilani Larsen is devoted to Austen and the playwright’s well-crafted transition from page to stage is intriguing. Both fans of “Persuasion” and readers who haven’t yet opened the cover of an Austen classic will be easily persuaded to enjoy this student-acted production.

The play's rich comedy is developed through the characters and welcomed.

My only reservation that I will share with “Persuasion” devotees is the slivering of protagonist Anne Elliot’s deep emotional longing for the suitor she was persuaded to abandon. While all the strength and passion of the romantic climax is intact and beautifully staged, the unwavering affection — a “love longest, when all hope is gone” — during her journey receives minimized treatment.

Barta Lee Heiner astutely directs a downsized assemblage of the vivid “Persuasion” characters. Even when the actors are not the scene’s center of attention, they have revealing actions that don’t overpower the proceedings. Anna Hargadon’s warm portrayal demonstrates all of Anne’s quiet introspection. Anne here is brave, spirited and wise, qualities Janeites will recognize. As the “obviously struck and confused” Captain Wentworth, Eliot Wood has the stiff resentment but doesn’t fully reveal all of Wentworth’s charisma to attract the swooning women that surround him.

The clever device the playwright employs to explain the broken engagement eight years prior is a series of brief flashback recollections. Younger versions of the two main characters, played by Kimberly Olson and Bryan Bowerman, appear on stage to illustrate their history with each other. It’s revealing to have the older Anne and Wentworth watch and comment during these sequences. But the concept becomes heavy handed when the younger characters begin to dialogue with their counterparts. More deft lighting would better set up these flashbacks, especially when the four actors are onstage together.

The audience is charmed by the flawless performance of Melanie McKay as Anne’s married sister. With both her acting and her direct-to-the-audience letter readings, McKay is funny and endearing. Ben Isaacs as Charles Musgrove is another favorite. One general note, actors. Please listen and pause for audience laughter to subside. Otherwise the line following goes astray.

The surprisingly strong scenic design, minimal but perfect, is by Eric Fielding. (Thanks for not requiring the performers to double duty as stagehands to change scenery and set for new scenes.) Landen Gates is credited with the accurate costuming.

Blair Howell is a freelance editor and writer.

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