Jennifer Summerfield is no stranger to the classics. Summerfield portrayed Lady Macbeth, Horatio in Hamlet and even Van Helsing in Dracula at Hedgerow Theatre, and recently co-produced and played Hedda Gabler. She is now appearing in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for the second time; she was Elinor in Jon Jory’s adaptation at Hedgerow Theatre, and is taking on two roles in People’s Light & Theatre Company’s adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan..
“What draws me to Jane Austen is the many layers of communication employed by her characters,” Summerfield explained, “and the importance of language both as a means of conveying information and a method for covering the passions that lie beneath the surface in a supposedly well-ordered society. I have always marveled at how Austen so artfully criticizes the prejudices and hypocrisies of early 19th-century society as her characters navigate their way through the very real dangers of economic and romantic uncertainty with intelligence, wit and strength.”
Summerfield took her first acting classes as a teen at Hedgerow, then continued studying in Paris during a junior year abroad while earning a BA in French literature from Smith College. It was during this time she decided to make acting her career. Later, in New York, she earned a certificate in the Meisner Technique from the Neighborhood Playhouse. Although she had been an actor for many years, Hedgerow’s production was Summerfield’s first time working with Austen, something she’d wanted to do since a teacher gave her Emma to read in the eighth grade.
“To go back and read Austen, whose characters, to a large extent, make their own fates, with humor, integrity and intelligence,” she observed, “is particularly valuable for young readers today. And her characters know how to state an argument and debate it and, in the end, triumph, which in this day of fragment sentences and emoticons, is a particularly valuable reminder of the power and beauty of language.”
By the mid-18th century, sensibility had become idealized as a natural capacity for emotional responsiveness that manifested itself in both men and women as compassion for the unfortunate, an ardent love of nature, delicate artistic tastes and, above all, an instinctive aversion to immorality. Despite its critics, the concept of “sensibility” was a huge influence on the artistic, literary and intellectual movement that became known as “Romanticism” in the early to mid-19th century. Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811 as the first of Austen’s six novels, is a witty social commentary on the society of the time. The Dashwood sisters, the older, rational Elinor and the younger, wildly romantic Marianne, are left with no fortunes and thus have the difficult task of finding suitable husbands after their father dies.
Appearing in two different versions has been a fascinating experience for Summerfield. “Each production was entirely unique, from the adaptation used to the size of the theatre and the size of the cast,” she reported. “Playing Elinor at Hedgerow, I was focused primarily on her track of the story, and realized how so much happens around her while she attempts to hold everything together. Performing in the People’s Light production as a servant and Sophia Grey, I’ve realized how varied the Dashwoods’ experiences are and how many different scenes and worlds they inhabit.”
People’s Light’s production brings a cast of 19 to the Leonard C. Haas Stage through March 20. Summerfield has been fascinated to view Austen through the “peepholes” of the adapters.
“The adapter in this case is a playwright who is bridging two entirely different literary forms,” Summerfield revealed..”He or she interprets the novel for you and decides what the audience should see…In the case of Sense and Sensibility there’s a great deal of exposition in the novel, but not a great deal of dialogue… and I think both Jory and Hanreddy/Sullivan do a wonderful job of making the audience fall in love with the characters on stage.”
The Jory version, used at Hedgerow, is more episodic, using characters popping in and out for comedic effect, and filtering much of its story through the eyes of Elinor. The Hanreddy/Sullivan adaptation at People’s Light, however, spreads the dialogue out between characters so the audience gains admittance to the evenings spent at the Middletons’ and dances in London.
People’s Light is located at 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA 19355. For tickets, call 610.644.3500 or visit www.PeoplesLight.org. Hedgerow Theatre is located at 64 Rose Valley Road in Rose Valley (near Media). For more info about their season or for tickets, call 610-565-4211 or visit www.HedgerowTheatre.org.