Mark Twain once observed that “Jane Austen’s books are absent from this library. Just that one omission would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.” History, in the guise of many readers as well as other famous writers and literary critics, has superseded Twain in that one-sided opinion. Most of Jane Austen’s novels are currently in fashion.
“Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,” has finally come to the Sacramento Theatre Company, without being transported brick by brick across the ocean, as Hearst’s castle was. It’s in a world premiere stage adaptation by the playwright Carissa Meagher, a local writer. A new work, the play inaugurated the theater company’s 75th season with its opening night Saturday.
The dilemma confronting any adapter of Austen, or for that matter, of any novel to another artistic medium, is multiform. One of Austen’s primary techniques is of the omniscient, witty, and frequently satirical narrator. Plays rarely have narrators (but don’t forget “Our Town”), so Meagher has solved this difficulty by introducing a new character, Jane Austen herself, onto the stage. The Austen character periodically comments on the action and her character, Catherine Moorland, in the author’s authentic, sardonic voice. Appropriately and effectively, both character and creator are played by the same actress, Olivia Stevenson, who makes great use of varying facial expressions and body language in her dual role.
A second barrier is the imaginative range of novels in locale, appearance, building interiors and exteriors – unfettered by the laws of physics and optics limiting stage construction. And buildings are essential to a novel with Gothic overtones such as Austen’s, making fun of the then-current British obsession with works such as “Otranto” or “Frankenstein.” These Gothic works are often set in dark mysterious medieval buildings, such as ruined castles and old decaying abbeys, with dollops of mystery and other horrors.
The current production alludes to this fascination of Catherine’s – and many of her contemporaries – with the Gothic, perhaps not so different from the contemporary fad of a number of films by incorporating the supernatural along with special effects. This play addresses that dimension, somewhat, with the on-stage Jane, technically a ghost from the future, along with her lantern-wielding brother Henry, who actually took the novel she first completed – but was unable to publish – “Northanger Abbey,” and had it published posthumously. Of course Jane, a bit like Casper, is a friendly ghost.
Gothic effects appear in the play’s second act, set in the abbey where several of the characters live. Catherine, as a fan of the Gothic, looks forward with comic expectation to her visit to an abbey. The STC can’t put an entire vast abbey onstage or take us down long dark hallways or underground passages to create suspense and horror, so it uses special effects which startle us – and Catherine. Also much effective and inventive use is made of stairs and moving doorways. In addition, General Tilney (Jonathan Williams), whose abbey this is, deploys a stentorian and authoritarian voice, which interrupts conversations and scenes as effectively as lightning and thunder; his red-and-yellow military uniform, his commanding presence, his comic contrast make him an unforgettable stage presence. But like the effects of thunder and lightning, his bark is worse than his bite.
The central problem for Catherine, like most Austen heroines – and Austen onstage keeps overtly calling her a “heroine” – is whether she can grow up a little, transcend the clichés and exaggerations of the Gothic form, live an authentic and satisfying life, and marry well. We see her visit Bath, an English resort town about nine miles from her rural home, accompanied by the suitable adult escort of Mr. and Mrs. Allen. The older woman goes shopping, the younger attends dances; we hear much discussion of etiquette, muslin, and posture. Catherine encounters new female acquaintances, and several new males, John Tilney (played wittily and distinctively by Mike DiSalvo) and Henry Tilney (James Edwards), who is more reticent, more elusive. To comic effect, these two younger male characters conflict in views, self-knowledge, dress, and ultimate value. There are many other characters and a variety of social functions to keep the plot moving, Catherine entertained, and the suitor question unresolved and intriguing.
These functions includes dances, where the fairly large cast of 12 actors and actresses nimbly executes intricate dance steps to musical accompaniment while effectively reciting Austen’s intricate sentences of dialogue and observation. The characters also go on several carriage/horse rides – another dilemma for an adaptation. But the production comes up with inventive ways to make the carriage rides not just believable but amusing and entertaining.
The question that confronts any Austen fan or prospective theatergoer is whether yet another version of an Austen novel, presumably one of her weakest, is a valuable stage presentation. Nevertheless, the playwright, the cast and the production crew have worked diligently to create a worthwhile evening’s entertainment.
If you go
“Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey”
What: An original adaptation by Carissa Meagher and directed by Teresa Stirling-Forsyth
Where: Sacramento Theater Company, 1419 H Street
Shows: It runs through October 27 and has performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Price: Tickets range from $20 to $40
Info and tickets: 916-443-6722