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A.R.T.’s Rollicking Theatrical Adaptation of Jane Austen

CFA alum stars in Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility

Jane Austen is alive and well and living in Cambridge. All right, that’s an exaggeration. But one of her most popular novels, Sense and Sensibility, written in 1811, is being brought to vivid life by the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) in a rollicking theatrical adaptation by playwright-actress Kate Hamill. The play costars James Patrick Nelson (CFA’08) in the pivotal role of Colonel Brandon.

This production was first presented by New York’s Bedlam Theater Company in 2014, then went on to a successful off-Broadway run in 2016, hence the title, Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility. It is on view at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center through January 14.

This is no stuffy costume drama. In Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility, props fly in and out of the wings (everything is on wheels) as the play ricochets from scene to scene at nearly breakneck speed.

At CFA, “I learned how to take off all the armor we wear out in the world and to let myself be seen, to dare to be vulnerable and authentic in front of other people.”— James Patrick Nelson (CFA’08)

Sense & Sensibility follows the adventures of the Dashwood sisters—sensible Elinor and the sensitive, more impetuous Marianne—after they are plunged into genteel poverty following the death of their father. As in all of Austen’s work, class, money, romance, and gossip figure prominently.

Hamill’s adaptation, which hews closely to Austen’s novel, has proven so popular that the A.R.T. production is one of at least eight versions of the play staged across the country this year. A review of Bedlam’s off-Broadway production by New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley notes that it “expands and magnifies Austen’s delicate comic worldview without cracking a single teacup…while the Bedlam Sense & Sensibility may seem to take daring liberties with its source’s quiet sensibility, it never violates the original novel’s uncommon sense—of values, of society, of human frailties.”

The Dashwood sisters are the indisputable leads on the page and on the stage, but the role of Colonel Brandon is central to Austen’s plot. He is the solid, dependable family friend of the Dashwoods, but his past is filled with heartbreak and loss. So when at last he captures Marianne’s heart, it’s especially gratifying.

Nelson as Colonel Brandon, surrounded by the cast of Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility.

Nelson (center) as Colonel Brandon and the cast of Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility. Photo by Ashley Garrett

“He has such a rich inner life,” Nelson says of his stage alter ego. “There’s so much going on with him, even though he doesn’t say very much. It’s been so rewarding to read between the lines and mine the subtext and build for him all the layers of conflict that inform his decisions.”

Nelson has had plenty of time to inhabit the role. He first appeared as the Colonel in a run at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., last year, and he says he jumped at a chance to work with Bedlam cofounder Eric Tucker, who is directing the A.R.T. production.

“Because I’ve played the role before, I have more confidence in myself,” he says. “I feel like the story and the character have really gotten into our bones and bloodstream. With that foundation, I feel the freedom to experiment, to try new things.”

An epiphany at 14

Growing up in the nation’s film capital of Los Angeles, Nelson believed that plays were something you did as a kid in school: professional adult actors worked in movies. That changed when he was 14 and he and a friend saw Tony Award–winning actor Brian Dennehy starring in a stage production of Death of a Salesman.

“Dennehy gave a colossal, visceral, animalistic performance,” he recalls. “It was like a tidal wave crashing over us—it was palpable and it was devastating and it stayed with me. After it was over, we sat in the theater for the longest time, just stunned, frozen. I felt confronted with a sudden certainty about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

When it came time to choose a college theater program, Nelson picked the College of Fine Arts, largely on the basis of his audition for Jim Petosa, School of Theatre director.

“Jim Petosa affirmed for me when I auditioned that I already had a strong sense of craft,” he says, “and that my time at the school would be more focused on learning how to work from a deeper sense of self—that the value of my work would not be defined by the number of tools I had in my tool kit, but by who I am as a human being and my willingness to be vulnerable and authentic.” The program gave him the confidence “to be myself…I learned how to take off all the armor we wear out in the world and to let myself be seen, to dare to be vulnerable and authentic in front of other people.”

Nelson as Claudius in a 2007 College of Fine Arts production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

Nelson as Claudius in a 2007 College of Fine Arts production of
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Photo by BU Photography

While at CFA, he also got a chance to take on roles that he says he “would never play in the real world,” including Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brutus in Julius Caesar, and Dorimant in the Restoration comedy Man of Mode. “People don’t see me as a rake, or a brute, or a good ol’ boy,” he says, “but it’s always an exciting challenge to approach characters who are so profoundly different from you and then discover how much you have in common with them.”

Since graduating from BU, Nelson has appeared off Broadway and with regional theater companies across the country, among them Mirror Rep, Berkeley Repertory Theater, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the American Shakespeare Center. In between, a string of odd jobs has helped pay the rent. “I’ve been a babysitter,” he says. “I worked in a phone bank. I was a pirate at a child’s birthday party. I taught Shakespeare in public schools for several years.”

He is also a playwright and screenwriter. He wrote and is starring in the upcoming thriller film Adam, which deals with sexual abuse, teen bullying, and domestic abuse. And his screenplay The Second Sun, an adaptation of a play he developed about a young Holocaust survivor and the woman he loved, has just been made into a feature film. Then there’s the as-yet-untitled multipart series he’s written about a religious family dealing with sexual violence and spiritual crisis in Trump’s America.

Nelson writes in between jobs and once a play has opened and rehearsals have ended. “I want to have more ownership over my work,” he says. “I want to have a say in the stories that I tell, I want to work on roles that challenge me and expand my perception of what I’m capable of doing.” But as much as he enjoys working in film and television, he says, he can’t ever imagine giving up the theater.

For now, he’s enjoying the chance to be back in Boston and revisiting Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility.

“I remember the first time I saw the original incarnation of the play, over three years ago, in a small black-box theater in downtown New York. I was dizzied with wonder, picking my jaw up off the floor, kicking my heels together with delight. I would love for our audience to have that kind of experience.”

Watch scenes from the A.R.T. production of Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility here.

Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility runs at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through January 14, 2018. Ticket prices begin at $25. Purchase tickets online, by calling the box office at 617-547-8300, or by visiting the box office, which is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon until a half hour before a scheduled performance. Student rush tickets are available for $15 with a valid college ID, subject to availability, by calling 617-547-8300 or visiting the box office. Limit one ticket per performance for each ID.

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John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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