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Mansfield Park
by Lauren Emily Whalen

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Playwright: Kate Hamill

At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets: $30-88; Runs through: Dec. 16

What is the price of passivity?

Fanny Price ( Kayla Carter ) isn't allowed to say no. From childhood, when she's taken from her squalid home and placed with relatives at a massive country estate, she must talk, walk and dress like the rich. That's not to say Fanny is accepted by her family: with one notable exception, everyone treats her as a lifelong charity case. When it comes time for Fanny to make real choices, does she draw on her carefully guarded morality or continue to be a well-dressed doormat?

Maybe not your typical image of a Jane Austen story.

But Mansfield Park is exactly that. Austen's third novel has plenty of romance, intrigue and beautiful dresses, but also explores the cost of living large through the eyes of the watchful, sensitive Fanny. Acclaimed playwright Kate Hamill brings this world premiere adaptation to Northlight Theatre, and also acts in the production as Fanny's foil, gossipy socialite Mary Crawford. Though Mansfield Park's first act runs a bit long, Hamill's script coupled with Stuart Carden's direction eclipses the simple delights and biting social commentary of Austen's writing, updating certain aspects of the story while remaining true.

Hamill, one of the most-produced playwrights in the United States, has previously adapted Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Her love of Austen is apparent in every hushed lovers' conversation and piece of witty banter. What sets Hamill apart from other Austen adaptors is her ability to go one step further, setting a feminist tone that the author would likely love. Hamill's Mansfield Park further explores every woman's limited ability to say "no" in polite society, as well as the dark secrets behind most every wealthy family. Someone has to pay for those large houses and pretty clothes, after all.

Director Carden stages Mansfield Park like an elaborate dance: transitions involve quick steps and rolling furniture pieces, and ballroom scenes are beautifully enhanced with Steph Paul's movement direction and Andrew Hansen's original score. The effect is both cinematic and theatrical, embodying the choreography the upper class must learn to keep up appearances and keep away demons, with varying degrees of success. Izumi Inaba's costumes are breathtaking, particularly symbolic animal disguises for act one's masquerade ball, the pastel floral gowns of Fanny's spoiled cousin Mariah ( Anu Bhatt ) and Fanny's beloved gold heart necklace, a gift from her brother and the one talisman she holds onto through the years.

As always, Northlight attracts actors who are the best of the best. Hamill's Mary is a standout, as is Nate Burger as Mary's roguish brother Henry, who decides to pursue Fanny as a way to amuse himself. Gabriel Ruiz's Edmund, Fanny's cousin and ally, is both gracious and gallant, and Bhatt's Mariah hilariously shallow. Only Carter seems a bit out of her element as Fanny, stumbling through her dialect and emotional arc as everyone else acts circles around her. Hiccups aside, Northlight's Mansfield Park is well worth the trip to Skokie: lush, gorgeous and surprisingly thought-provoking .

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