A Utah Theater Review by Kara Henry
I can’t remember when I became a Jane Austen fan. It goes so far back that it seems like it’s always been a part of me. Last night, I trekked from Spanish Fork to Salt Lake to see Zion Theater Company‘s Jane Austen’s Persuasion at the Off Broadway Theater with my friend, Natalie. This was adapted for the stage by Melissa Leilani Larson, and boy, was I not disappointed. I’ve read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at least twenty times (this is not hyperbole) and Persuasion at least five or six. So, when I heard Persuasion was coming to the stage, I jumped on the chance to see it. I know and love these characters.
Persuasion is the story of a young woman, Anne Elliot (Ronnie Stringfellow), who broke her engagement as a young girl to a man she loved, a naval officer with no fortune named Frederick Wentworth (Adam Argyle), on the advice of her family and a beloved family friend. Seven years later, her family is in debt, and they must rent their house. The tenants are Wentworth’s sister and brother in law, and suddenly, Wentworth, a captain now who has made his fortune, is back in her life. She is still in love with him, but he has not forgiven her for being persuaded by her family to break their engagement and for breaking his heart.
Stingfellow understands the sweet, patient and intelligent Anne Elliot, playing her with depth and energy, all the while making her lovable. In the book, she can be read as flat and weak, but Stringfellow avoids this entirely on stage. Argyle and Stringfellow’s pain and awkwardness upon seeing each other after nearly eight years are palpable. These two literally gave me goose bumps at the climax of the show.
One of the devices the script uses is a series of flashbacks to the events that brought together and then tore apart Anne and Wentworth. Rebecca Minson and Kevin O’Keefe play the younger Anne and Wentworth, and as they interacted with each other and the older versions of themselves, it could have come off as odd or awkward, but it flowed seamlessly. I believed the relationships between all of them.
However, I would have liked to see this device established more solidly at first. I understood what was going on immediately because of my background with the story, but it took Natalie (who was familiar with Austen, but not this book) longer. If perhaps Anne had mimed younger Anne in the opening scene, this could have been established from the start. Some patrons who came in a few minutes late who sat next to us also took around four flashbacks to get it (the flashback scenes are extremely short). Quick aside here: the audience on opening night seemed to enjoy the show, but they weren’t very demonstrative, which was a pity.
As good as the Annes and Wentworths are, Alice Johnson as Anne’s sister Mary nearly steals the show (while still managing to never upstage—she walks the line precisely). Her impeccable comic timing, her creative vocal inflection, her hair, her bits with the food she is always eating, make her a delight onstage. She manages to illustrate the classic Jane Austen satiric commentary on foppish, weak people, and make her likable and hilarious without losing any of the satire. I would seek out shows she is in just to see another performance by her.
Jason Fullmer, as her husband, Charles Musgrove, plays off her energy and giving his character the right blend of the practical man who is pushed to being a bit ridiculous by his wife’s follies which his character called for.
Henrietta and Louisa, Ashley Crane and Erin Armstrong respectively, played chattering young girls, the sisters of Charles Musgrove, with relish. I loved their giggly, quickly-paced talking. In one of my favorite scenes in the whole show, they are sitting on either side of Captain Wentworth, flirting and competing for his attention, as they feign interest in navy ships. Spot on. I wish Louisa would have pushed her impulsive and free nature slightly more to highlight the contrast with Anne.
Mrs. Smith (Brooke Wilkins)—delightful as the invalid friend that Anne visits. She had the right note of cheerfulness and delight in gossip while still being realistic as a sick person; she sounded convincingly ill, which was a nice vocal touch.
Lady Russell (Heidi Cochran)—I would have liked to see more of why she had influence over Anne. This might have been partially a script problem, but perhaps she could have played up more of the warmth and motherly kindness between them (it was there; I just wanted a bit more, particularly in the first scene). Otherwise, she was quite believable as the stately English lady.
Elizabeth Elliot (Heather Jones)—I would have liked to see more clarity in the relationships with her family. It wasn’t clear to Natalie and me that she was Anne’s sister. We were wondering if she was the stepmother—perhaps some more youthful costume choices would have helped establish this as well. However, I did like her snobbery, and they way she played the character in general. Her relationship with her father, Sir Walter, is hilarious, as they are both vain and pretentious, and they drive each other to greater and greater lengths.
Mr. Elliot (Elijah Amodt)—He wasn’t as strong as the other members of the cast. He was harder to hear and he always spoke in his upper register, which contributed to making him hard to hear. He also seemed a bit ill at ease on stage, but since it was opening night, perhaps he will relax a bit. He did seem very stately, which fit his character, so it would be a shame to lose any of that.
Harville (Rob Abney)—double cast. Great physicality on the part of Abney. This part is also crucial as a catalyst to the denouement of the play, and Abney did an excellent job building it and keeping what is essentially and intellectual debate fresh. Both he and Stringfellow did an excellent job in this section.
Sir Walter (Rob Abney)—Spot on as the snobby and appearance obsessed father. I particularly liked his vocal choices, as an upper-crust gentleman.
Mrs. Clay (Ashley Crane)—double cast part, I would have liked to see a bit more deviousness, and to see the scheming mind here, and the relationship she has with Sir Walter, but in general, I liked her. The glasses were a nice bit of costuming.
Benwick (Kevin O’Keefe)—another double cast role. I liked his anxiousness, and his physicality was right on. The nervous handling of his book was right on for the character.
One thing this show did extremely well was make use of the small stage. There was a simple gray set, with a few pieces of small period-looking furniture. Then, the same pieces of furniture were rearranged for each setting. Even though they were the same two chairs, table and settee, it was easy to follow. Set changes were done smoothly and quickly by the actors themselves. The only little bit I had a problem with was that one of Mary’s grapes that she was eating rolled and no one picked it up for several scenes. I never did see what happened to that grape (did someone eventually see it between scene changes? Did it end up squashed on the ground?). I have no idea.
I was a little worried about how the script would be, knowing it was written/adapted by a local author. That was silly of me, because it was fantastic. One of my favorite devices was the letters being read out loud by the characters who wrote them. This was done superbly by the actors (seriously – so, so well), and this was an excellent piece of direction by Sarah Stewart. Sometimes things like this can be so stiff, but it was not in the least bit. I was a little disappointed not to see Admiral Croft and his wife actually appear, as they are favorites from the book, but I can understand that the cast is already quite large and it’s not necessary to the plot to have them actually onstage.
The script does an excellent job of staying true to the book, and staying true to its themes. This story is about finding redemption from and forgiveness for past mistakes, and finding the balance between allowing others to influence us too much or not enough.
Stewart’s direction is quite good, with each character having a distinct personality, and the movement and pictures on stage making sense. It’s rare for me to get lost in a story and feel like the action is completely real (I always have my critic’s hat on), but I did in this show.
This was my first time at the Off Broadway Theater, and I was won over by its character, even though it was a bit run-down—it’s not seedy or off-putting—just charming. I had no trouble finding parking. Concessions were inexpensive (a dollar for a candy bar or a can of soda) and delicious.
This show and I were a perfect fit. I’m trying not to gush. Perhaps I’ll just let loose and gush. If you like Jane Austen or period pieces, go see this show. You do not want to miss it.
Zion Theater Company’s Jane Austen’s Persuasion
Adapted by Melissa Leilani Larson
The Off Broadway Theater
272 South Main Street, Downtown Salt Lake City, UT 84101
September 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22
Tickets: Tickets: $12, $10, $8
To buy tickets online, go to: