Northlight Theatre


Mansfield Park

At the Northlight Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Skokie –The typical Jane Austen novel goes something like this. A young woman meets and eventually marries an eligible man after a series of usually comic difficulties. Overcoming these obstacles helps one or both of the characters gain the self-knowledge required for a happy marriage.

Austen’s “Mansfield Park” does not precisely follow that roadmap. The central character is actually the least interesting of the major figures in the narrative and the language doesn’t have as much wit and sparkle as classics like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Emma.” That means the stage adaptation at the Northlight Theatre may disappoint spectators expecting a more scintillating evening. But don’t blame Kate Hamill, the adapter, or the first rate Northlight production. They are doing what they can with the book Austen wrote.

The novel’s title is a wealthy estate in provincial England during the early 1800’s. The master of the estate is Sir Thomas Bertrand, a stern man with two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Mariah and Julia (who is omitted from the play). The other major figures in are Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, both attractive but with an eye on the main chance when it comes to love and marriage. Into this domestic brew comes Fanny Price, a poor relation sent to Mansfield Park as a kind of household slavery.

Fanny enters the novel at the age of nine and is much abused by other characters, notably the nasty busybody Mrs. Norris. But through her natural intelligence and goodness Fanny rises to play an essential role within the extended Bertrand family. In the play we meet Fanny as she enters the Bertrand establishment at an indeterminate age, meek and fearful. In a few minutes of playing time, she has grown in years and in assurance and competency, a full member of the family society. Fanny’s growth is just skimmed in the play, initially causing the viewer some difficulties in locating just where we are in her family role.

This being a Jane Austen tale, the young characters shuffle their relationships, often creating mismatches and misunderstandings and hard feelings. Eventually, after several false starts, the relationships are mostly sorted out. Some characters will lead happy marital lives and others, not so much. Fanny defies the social code of the time, at least in Austen novels, in which the triumphant female captures the brass ring, a man of wealth and social standing. In Austen’s world, that counts for a happy ending. But Fanny refuses to settle for a soulless life of money and social position. She ultimately achieves love and marriage with a man, poor but compatible with her sense of decency.

      Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

All Austen’s fiction deals heavily in social codes of the time. In “Mansfield Park, she injects a major and troubling issue. The Bertrand money comes from sugar plantations the family owns in the West Indies. Those plantations are worked by African-born slaves. As more than one character comments, the clothes on their back are bought with slave labor. They may be uncomfortable with the fact, but the alternative is rejection of the life style they cannot live without. Only Fanny takes a strong stand, though it changes nothing. But at least she is true to herself.

As often happens in literature and drama, the most interesting characters are the least principled. The play gives many of the best lines to Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford, played with delicious cynicism by Nate Burger and Kate Hamill (the playwright, but a superb actress). We can cut Henry some slack because he surprisingly but sincerely falls in love with Fanny, who rejects him (and his fortune), much to the outrage of the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertrand, who orders Fanny back to her impoverished family as a perverse ingrate.

The first act is slow going as we meet all the chief characters and try to keep straight who is who (most of the cast doubles and triples in roles). The second act picks up in intensity and interest as Fanny is allowed to take center stage, showing an independence and moral courage virtually unheard of in the social world of Mansfield Park.

Director Stuart Carden directs with considerable pace, the short scenes in the first act whizzing by as the characters make their early entrances and exits. Kayla Carter is a resolute Fanny, but her character is overshadowed for much of the evening but the more interesting, if flawed, people around her. Along with Burger and Hamill, there is fine work by Heidi Kettenring as both the unpleasant Mrs. Norris and Fanny’s rowdy Cockney mother, Mark Montgomery as the dictatorial Sir. Thomas Bertrand, Anu Bhatt as Mariah Bertrand, Curtis Edward Johnson as the flamboyant and ultimately tragic Tom Bertrand, and Gabriel Ruiz as the decent Edmund Bertram, a poor clergyman against his father’s wishes, who takes some hard emotional knocks before coming out happily at the end.

      Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

The action is played out in front of Yu Shibagaki’s permanent set, an architectural framework that suggests the wealthy Mansfield Park house. Izumi Inaba’s costume designs authentically evoke the styles of the time. Andrew Hansen’s sound design and Christine Binder’s lighting design round out the excellent physical production.

Northlight patrons with fond memories of the company’s superb Austen adaptations of past seasons will have to adjust their expectations to less urbane dialogue and more concern with moral and social values. The adaptation is weightier thematically but it’s less fun. Still, the fine staging and outstanding acting are a major plus and Austen, even in low gear, remains a master worth any theatergoer’s time.

The show gets a rating of  

“Mansfield Park” runs through December 16 at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $88. Call 847 673 6300 or visit www.northlight.org.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.         November 2018

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