Review: “Mansfield Park”

Anu Bhatt (L to R), Kayla Carter and Nathan Burger in “Mansfield Park.”
(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Skokie
When: through Dec. 16
Tickets: $30-$88
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

There’s arguably more of playwright Kate Hamill than of author Jane Austen in Northlight Theatre’s world premiere of “Mansfield Park,” and more of director Stuart Carden, too.

So, if you’re expecting the 19th-century novelist’s sharp but sensitive satire of the mores and manners of her time, you can pretty much forget about it. Billed as “based on the novel” rather than an adaptation, the two-plus hour show is more of a feminist fairytale about the costs of succeeding or even surviving, coupled with a serious condemnation of a reprehensible economic and social institution. And most of the time, the staging closely resembles farce.

The moral center of the story, and calm in the midst of the storm both literally and figuratively, is Fanny Price (Layla Carter). Sent as a child by her impoverished mother to live at the title mansion, dubbed “the finest in the county,” she’s taken in by her stern, even cruel aunt, Mrs. Norris (Heidi Kettenring), who runs the household for her other aunt, addled Lady Bertram (playwright Kate Hamill), and her husband Sir Thomas Bertram (Mark Montgomery). They have three children (four in the novel) – Mariah (Anu Bhatt), Tom (Curtis Edward Jackson), and Edmund (Gabriel Ruiz) – and everyone treats Fanny like a servant…everyone, that is, except Edmund.

The production speeds over these events fast enough that we barely have time to figure out how old Fanny is supposed to be when she arrives (nine or ten I think), and before we know it, she’s a quiet young woman who can speak and read proper English and can adjust to whatever is expected of her, almost. Her mantra, repeated in response to every new challenge, is “I can learn.”

The main challenges come with the arrival of Henry Crawford (Nate Burger) and his sister Mary Crawford (Hamill) while Sir Thomas and the alcoholic Tom are at the family’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Amid heavy partying and plans to put on a scandalous play, Henry at first sets about wooing Mariah, but when she sticks with her manic intended, Mr. Rushworth (Jackson), he turns his attention to Fanny, with increasing ardor the more she rejects him.

Meanwhile, Mary sets her sights on Edmund, even though he’s a second son and intends to become a clergyman, an idea she detests. Edmund, in turn, is charmed by her, which dismays Fanny, who has obviously been in love with him since they became friends as children.

Carden directs at a breakneck pace, often with the actors rapidly rolling the furniture around Yu Shibagaki’s set, which features a handsome framework suggesting a grand house. Much of the time they’re screaming or shouting their lines, so figuring out their motivations or how they actually feel about each other is difficult.
For example, Henry professes he’s really in love with Fanny and has reformed his womanizing ways for her, but Burger’s manner remains smug enough that we don’t know whether we’re supposed to believe him, even when he comes to visit her back at her parents’ home where she’s been sent for refusing to marry him. Similarly, Mary too comes to visit her, begging her to return to Mansfield Park, and we can’t tell if this stems from genuine concern or self-interest to facilitate her marriage to Edmund.

The amount of doubling also potentially causes confusion. Jackson is both Tom and Mr. Rushworth, who appear in rapid succession, and it takes a minute to figure out which is which, despite with black and white costumes respectively. Hamill jumps back and forth between Mary and Lady Bertram, merely donning and removing a cloak and growling hand-puppet dog in the process. Virtually everyone plays members of the flea-bitten Price household as well as the richer relations.

Fanny’s return to her poor childhood home has to do here with more than her unwillingness to wed Henry. Unlike in the novel, the fact that Mansfield Park is built on, and sustained by, slave labor on the sugar plantation is a driving force in Hamill’s version. Fanny is totally disgusted by it. Tom is basically driven mad. Edmund, at first reluctant to go against the grain, eventually disavows it as morally wrong. And Fanny, with moral right on her side, is finally emboldened to stand up for herself and say a forceful “no” to anyone who tries to tell her what to do.

This would all be more effective if we cared about the characters, but aside from a sometimes sympathetic Fanny from Carter and Edmund from Ruiz, they remain one dimensional. Skilled actors make that dimension come through loud and clear—particularly Montgomery’s blustery Sir Thomas and Kettenring’s nasty Mrs. Norris—but more depth would be even better.

While the set is striking, and the lighting design by Christine A. Binder and original music and sound design by Andrew Hansen are more than serviceable, Izumi Inaba’s costume design is strange. Period outfits sport incongruous touches—leather (or look of) pants for Henry, cold shoulders on Mary’s gown—and these two characters, among others, each have a single costume whereas they should have several given the length of their stay at the estate. On the other hand, there are some clever touches like the masks for a ball.

“Mansfield Park” isn’t a bad show by any means, but given the caliber of the actors and of Northlight’s other Austen forays, it is disappointing.