Lost Nation Theater Does It Again

by Jane Bishop

What do you say about a theater experience that makes you laugh out loud and quietly weep, that renews your sense of wonder, jolts your idea of traditional storytelling, and leaves you rejoicing in being alive, here in this place, and among these people, right now.

You say, “Thank you!”

Vermont’s Lost Nation Theater (LNT) is now offering Kate Hamill’s brilliant stage adaptation of the classic English novel “Sense and Sensibility.” What? You haven’t been yet? Run, don’t walk. Performances continue through Sunday. See it while you have the chance.

Having previewed “Sense & Sensibility” with producing artistic director Kathleen Keenan , I was intrigued, even excited — but also skeptical. Kathleen, herself a consummate actor, musician, and producer, could sell ice to Eskimos. So this former English teacher, theater buff, and Jane-ite, bought a ticket and went to see for myself.

All expectations were exceeded. Just this once, the voluble Ms. Keenan may have understated. More likely the director knew then what all who have seen the play know now: You had to be there.

Only by being there could you grasp that Hamill’s fresh interpretation of Miss Austen’s famous book (first published in 1811, mind you) is not a modernistic abridgement. On the contrary, this is a lively distillation to the essence of the timeless love story. It is, as the LNT playbill notes, “a showcase for the magic of theater and the art of the actor.”

The success of the experience is an alchemist’s ideal mix: a flawlessly orchestrated production, delivered by versatile actors who are encouraged by the appreciation of a rapt audience. The audience was, in fact, a sweet surprise. This ensemble of cast and crew almost instantly engaged the audience in a camaraderie not always seen in these parts. Soon we were elbowing each other, exchanging looks, slapping knees — then worrying and even needing tissues right up to the joyful denouement.

In this fast-paced, complex presentation, only two of the twelve actors play just one role. These two become for us the sisters Elinor and Marianne, whose fates are at the heart of the drama. Bearing the  timeless beauty of a cameo, Annie Evans of Reno, Nevada, makes her Vermont debut as unselfish Elinor, the older sister with the “sense,” i.e., practical habits and a clear head — and, as we learn, an achingly vulnerable heart.

D.C.-based Katelyn Manfre returns to LNT as pretty, ebullient Marianne, whose “sensibility” casts her in contrast to, but not in conflict with, her beloved older sister. The complementing artists suit not only the story but also each other. They seem to share DNA. As stage sisters, their mutual devotion never fails, although their mutual understanding may.

Early deprived of their father’s fortune, the poor girls endure a constant chorus of gossipy neighbors. Luckily, these Gossips constitute a virtual Greek chorus, moving the action along while keeping the audience — and each other — entertained. For these Gossips are key members of the cast, all taking one or more distinct and demanding parts.

For example, lovely Laura Michelle Erle, also making her debut here, IS both Fanny, the avaricious sister-in-law, AND Lucy, the shameless hussy. When Fanny and Lucy engage in a raucous cat fight right in front of us, Erle convincingly and hilariously fights herself. (You had to be there.)

Eve Passeltiner is back at LNT and must be lauded for her representation of the irrepressibly loud and lovable Mrs. Jennings. Her partner in mischief and match-making, Lord Middleton, is the marvelous Brooklynite Leon Axt. This stage veteran evoked laughter just by showing his face in any of his many roles.

Other proud stand-outs: Sebastian Ryder playing first a sad widow and then a silly young social climber. Amanda Menard, she of Bear Pond Books, was a child and then a stately dame. (You had to be there.)

Erin Galligan-Baldwin (in real life the director of Stage 32 at U-32 High School) served as a Gossip, as Lady Middleton, and as the resident Dramaturge. Vermont’s own Taryn Noelle was choreographer; Tim Tavcar returned to design the music that underscored each mood.

Sam Balsac, Mariana Considine, Michael Dewar, Brett Lawler: THANK YOU. With your faces, voices, and bodies — and with a few lovely costumes or suggestions of costume — every member of the cast as well as the indefatigable crew made this theatrical experience special.

Good Job! You made an “A.” THANK YOU.

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