Readers have been rooting for Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth to rekindle their long-lost love since Jane Austen’s Persuasion first hit the book stalls back in 1817. L.A. theatergoers can now follow their example as South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre debuts A.J. Darby’s 2015 adaptation, retitled The Elliots. Yes, both Darby’s play and its World Premiere production could stand some tweaking, but Persuasion fans will find much to enjoy in two hours spent with Austen’s now iconic characters.
Kelly Lohman stars as Anne, who eight years ago allowed herself to be persuaded to reject the wedding proposal made to her by penniless naval officer Frederick (Travis Goodman), this being back in the days when marriage to a man of means was a young woman’s only option, regardless of family fortune. (Damn those sexist English inheritance laws!)
Act One of The Elliots alternates flashbacks of Anne and Frederick’s ill-fated romance with present-day (1814) scenes as fate offers the former lovers the possibility of reigniting extinguished embers if only they can persuade themselves to do so.
Among assorted family members, friends, and acquaintances, The Elliots introduces us to Anne’s 60something father Sir Walter (Steve Peterson), forced by financial woes to rent out the Elliot mansion to a certain Admiral Croft, whose wife’s brother turns out to be none other than now Captain Frederick Wentworth, eight years older and even wealthier than he had once promised Anne to become.
Also featured amongst The Elliots’ dramatis personae are Anne’s snooty older sister Elizabeth (Emily Greco), her highly-strung, frequently ailing younger sister Mary (Kalen Harriman), Mary’s patience-tried husband Charles (Nicklaus Von Noble), and Charles’ bubbly teenage sisters Louisa and Henrietta (Paula Deming and Madison Kirkpatrick).
Completing the cast of characters (and offering Louisa and Henrietta the possibility of their own romantic swain) are Frederick’s fellow officer Captain James Benwick (Jeffrey Nichols), in mourning these past six months for his sadly deceased fiancée, and Reverend Charles Hayter (Ryan Young), more prone to quoting scripture than to offering an original thought, if indeed he has one in his noggin.
Throughout The Elliots, Darby alternates between scenes set in the 1814 present and others in the not-so-distant past, a structure that works in Act One, allowing us to get to know today’s Elliots while revealing bit by bit how Anne and Frederick’s romance ended up “persuaded” into oblivion back in ‘06.
There is, however, no logical reason to opt for anything other than chronological order in a second act whose back-and-forth action will only perplex those unfamiliar with either Austen’s novel or one of its screen adaptations.
Darby chooses to excise a couple of Persuasion’s major characters, and not necessarily to The Elliots’ benefit. Gone is Lady Russell, whose persuasive advice was one reason Anne turned down Frederick’s proposal. Gone too is Sir William, heir to Sir Walter’s estate and a potential—and convenient—suitor for Anne. (Yes, Mr. Elliot’s name does come up in Act Two, but talked about does not equal seen.)
As for the play’s title, Persuasion has worked perfectly fine for 198 years now, and though Darby’s adaptation does indeed not follow Austen’s novel to the letter, neither do countless other Austen adaptations that have retained their original monikers. (My guess is that many who would jump at a chance to see “Persuasion The Play” might skip “The Elliots” simply because its title does not ring a familiar bell.)
Still, despite her play’s flaws, the writer has managed to compact a 200-page novel to under two hours, bringing to life most of Persuasion’s beloved cast while maintaining the Austen “feel” that has enchanted readers, moviegoers, and TV viewers alike for so many years.
Yes, director Karissa McKinney ought well to have opted for less languid pacing, the better to create an overall snappier tone throughout. Fortunately, a first-rate cast of actors (five of whom appear for the time being though the “courtesy” of Actors Equity) each puts his or her own distinctive stamp on Persuasion’s now iconic characters.
As Anne Elliot, the lovely Lohman brings to life one of Jane Austen’s most complex heroines, one whose outward reserve hides considerable depth of both emotion and thought, and the production’s leading lady is matched by Goodman, her dashing romantic partner in once-expressed, now-repressed longing.
Greco’s deliciously snooty Elizabeth appears to have only just imbibed a not-so-delicious prune-and-lemon juice mix, making the emotional transition she undergoes in an eleventh hour bit of letter reading all the more powerful.
Harriman makes for a delightfully “afflicted” Mary and Von Noble does well too as her long-suffering but good-natured husband Charles, Deming and Kirkpatrick give Henrietta and Louisa just the right youthful verve, and Peterson effectively embodies crusty old Sir Walter.
Supporting males Nichols and Young do some of the evening’s most watchable work, the former giving us a palpably good-hearted Captain Benwick, the latter having fuddy-duddy fun as the scripture-spouting Reverend.
As scenic designer, McKinney has taken clever advantage of the Fremont Centre Theatre stage’s pre-existing arches to create an elegant set with minimum modification of what is already there. (A coat of paint, some furniture, and Kate Woodruff’s assorted props suffice quite nicely, thanks to Mark and Lily Ceri’s set construction.)
Brandon Watson’s topnotch lighting design cues us in as to whether we are in the present day or witnessing flashbacks. Andrew Villaverde’s sound design gives The Elliots an appropriately romantic musical underscoring in addition to its various effects.
Each character sports a single outfit regardless of past or present tense, Allison Gorjian’s designs giving everyone an appropriately Regency look. Woodruff’s hair and makeup design are mostly good with the exception of Elizabeth’s and Louisa’s jarringly out-of-place dos.
The Elliots is produced by Gorjian, Betsy Roth, McKinney, and Woodruff for Little Candle Productions. Andrew Maldonado is stage manager. Amanda Miller is dramaturg.
While not the pitch-perfect Persuasion that Austen fans might have been hoping for (the second act flashbacks really do have to go), The Elliots has charm, romance, and some vividly rendered characters. I may not have loved it as much as I would have liked, but for the most part, Austen’s magic held me in its spell.
Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena.
May 14, 2105
Photos: Kate Felton