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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Austen’s Inquiries Still Sizzle

Acacia presents ‘Persuasion’

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Using Jennifer Le Blanc’s recent award-winning adaptation, Acacia Theatre presents an engaging production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The script fluidly combines direct address and dialogue to keep the audience abreast of the characters’ locations and intricate social and familial ties. Although there were some memorization and diction problems, the story is nonetheless clearly conveyed in all the complexities of plot and character for which Austen is famed.

Production values are strong in Acacia’s production. Denise Elfe and Marie Wilke’s beautiful period costumes and Victor Pilolla’s spare but elegant set transport us visually into 1814 England. The many scene changes are facilitated by Gabe Gorsline’s lighting plot and usefully projected subheadings cueing us in on time and place. Therese Goode’s sound design finishes the illusion, gently lilting us into the setting through the complex strains of a piano.

Under Tim Rebers’ direction, all performers seem to have a strong grasp of the complex storyline and all likewise make good efforts at the upper-crust dialect that pervades the show. Of particular note is Susie Duecker as the protagonist, Anne Elliot, whose impeccable vocal delivery and engaging facial expressions effectively convey her character’s journey of self-realization. The other romantic lead, Michael Jeske (Captain Frederick Wentworth), likewise delivers a strong performance, aptly balancing his character’s underlying passion with the outward cool and control of his military standing. The masterful Maureen Chobanoff (Lady Russell/Mrs. Sophia Croft) seems most at ease in the 19th-century setting, and Rick Berggreen makes a delightfully smarmy and duplicitous villain in the role of William Elliot.

Two hundred years later, it is remarkable how close to home Austen’s scenarios strike. Although the rigid class structure and casual sexism, classism and general pettiness of many of the characters can be difficult to swallow, we may nevertheless understand this piece as a true human drama whose root questions remain timely. Is there any hope for reconciliation after profound heartbreak? How do we respond to the machinations of those who claim to want the best for us but may really be self-serving or upholding an inadequate status quo? What is ultimately most persuasive—these social pressures or the stirrings of our own hearts?

Jane Austen’s Persuasion runs through July 20, at Concordia University’s Todd Wehr Auditorium, 12800 N. Lake Shore Drive, Mequon. For tickets, visit www.acaciatheatre.com.