Northlight Theatre finds the radicalism in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Northlight Theatre finds the radicalism in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park 

Kate Hamill's "collaboration" adjusts the focus and heightens the drama.

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Kate Hamill describes her version of Jane Austen's 1814 novel about poor but amiable Fanny Price and her coming of age among her wealthy relatives at the well-appointed Mansfield Park as more than an adaptation. She calls it a "collaboration between myself and the author." This is not mere Austenophilia. Hamill (who also plays three roles in the production) keeps Austen's characters, and her basic plot, more or less intact—Fanny remains steadfast and true, despite all distractions and temptations to do otherwise. But Hamill heightens the drama. Fanny's aunt Lady Bertram, for instance, is revealed to be an opium addict, and the story's sexual undercurrents are much more obvious onstage than in the book. As is the most controversial element of the novel, the fact that the magnificent Mansfield Park was paid for with profits from the slave trade in the Caribbean.

There is a passing reference to this in Austen's novel, but Hamill makes it a major focus of her adaptation. At one point Fanny's beloved cousin Edmund shows his moral superiority by lamenting loudly that "we are all beneficiaries of that system [slavery]." Hamill's changes may shock purists, but they provide a welcome respite for those of us who get a little irritated by the bubble of privilege Austen's characters frolic in.

Stuart Carden's energetic production unfolds gracefully, thanks in no small part to his excellent cast. Kayla Carter's performance as Fanny balances well her character's charm and amiability with the need to provide a sound moral center to the story. Carter's Fanny, like all Austen heroines, is no pushover. Likewise, Heidi Kettenring provides fire and steely backbone as Mrs. Norris, Fanny's martinet of an aunt. All of this plays out on Yu Shibagaki's simple, elegant, infinitely practical set.   v

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