A cast of memorable characters comes to life on the Western Reserve Playhouse stage with the classic Jane Austen story "Emma."
Under the fine direction of longtime Actors' Summit company member Keith Stevens, the delightful and charming Shani Ferry stars as young matchmaker Emma Woodhouse. Ferry, a regular Akron-area pro who also worked for many years at Actors' Summit, brings bright humor to this meddling, spoiled society girl who derives endless entertainment and self-satisfaction from her misguided manipulations of her friends' love lives.
This stage adaptation, create by former Cleveland Play House artistic director Michael Bloom in 2010, is based on one of Austen's greatest novels, published in late 1815. It's Austen's fourth of sixth novels and the last to be published during her lifetime.
The story is set in the early 19th century amid the country gentry of fictional Highbury, England. In Emma's world, courtship and marrying well is just about everything for the young women of this country village. This heroine sees people as projects and believes she is always right when it comes to matters of the heart.
Bloom's adaptation makes highly effective use of monologues by Emma, where she tells the audience of her delight in matchmaking and gradually of her horror at the errors she has made with other people's lives. Ferry has excellent comedic delivery, especially in the moments when the largely good-natured Emma shares her innermost thoughts about her foibles.
A tight supporting cast includes Eli Ravenson as good friend Mr. George Knightley, Victoria Kirgesner as confidante/newlywed Mrs. Weston, Emily Shipley as the unsophisticated young Harriet Smith and Kayla Lehman as the beautiful and secretive Jane Fairfax. Mia Radabaugh is the ever-talkative spinster Miss Bates and the humorous Dennis Runkle is Emma's father Henry, who fusses that young women shouldn't marry.
Ravenson creates the voice of reason as the serious Mr. Knightley, the only character to stand up to Emma's silliness and chastise her when she speaks unkindly. Henry, on the other hand, thoroughly indulges his daughter.
This story becomes a comedy of manners as some love triangles develop. Michael Knobloch is charming and effusive as young Frank Churchill, whom Emma starts to fall for, though she has sworn off ever marrying. It's just too bad his light-colored, satiny pants are so unattractive in comparison with the other men's dark pants onstage.
Kelsey Tomlinson cuts a snooty character as Augusta Hawkins and Zach Manthey's Mr. Elton is almost as silly as Emma, until he's subdued by his imperious new wife Augusta.
These richly drawn Austen characters have provided plenty of fodder for adaptations over the years, for the stage as well as in TV and film. That includes a 2000 musical version of the story as well as the 1995 movie "Clueless," set in Beverly Hills and starring Alicia Silverstone.
In Bloom's stage adaptation, Emma's sister Isabella and brother-in-law John Knightley, the younger brother of George, are not seen.
Western Reserve's production features some nice recorded music as both Emma and Jane sit at the piano to entertain friends. Ferry and Knobloch also share a lovely vocal duet.
Emma, who is rich due to an inheritance, can afford to concern herself with other people's class and social status. She's likable nevertheless, especially when she confesses herself to be a "spoiled child." And Runkle's Henry has one of the funniest lines in the show when he finally concedes that Emma's marrying will at least put an end to her matchmaking business.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.