Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s production of Emma, based on the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel by Claire F. Martin, inserts a dose of modernity into this regency rom-com that elevates its enchantment.
Dear Emma Woodhouse just can’t resist meddling in matchmaking. Having successfully paired off her former governess with the widowed Mr. Weston, Emma believes she possesses a valuable talent, though most of her efforts result in the usual variety of romantic misunderstandings.
As the title character, Katie Barrett emits vivacity and self-assuredness as she embarks on finding a husband for her new friend, Harriet Smith, played with great comic wide-eyed naivete by Miranda Curtis. Alas, good intentions cause a fair share of complications for a variety of couplings.
Discouraging Harriet from accepting the proposal from a local young farmer, Robert Martin (an earnest and engaging Will van Deventer), Emma persuades Harriet to pursue the new vicar, Phillip Elton, skillfully rendered by Ethan Adcox. Unfortunately, he has eyes for the witty and more financially attractive Emma, causing much heartache for Harriet. His true character is revealed with his marriage to a newly rich, pretentious woman, Augusta Hawkins, played with delightful snootiness by Emma Droste.
What keeps the story from becoming maudlin is the presence of George Knightley, brother to Emma’s older sister’s husband, and a faithful friend who doesn’t shy away from upbraiding Emma when her machinations cause harm. Justin Johnson offers an engaging portrait of a man both smitten and exasperated with Emma’s independence and misguidance. When he finally makes his feelings evident, seducing both Emma and the audience with his expressive eyes, the effect is magical.
This ensemble, under the careful direction of Hayley Philippart, shines when gathered on the minimalistic stage, from simulating the crowded sitting room of Miss Bates to the sweltering humidity of an afternoon picnic. All lean into the broad comedy of the various situations as well as lend individuality to the conventional characterizations. Stephanie Cotton-Snell is endearing as the relentlessly chattering Miss Bates while Liz Sanford adds a bit of mysterious sadness to Jane Fairfax, her niece. Zoe Barham and Brook North as Mr. and Mrs. Weston contribute to the humor whenever they appear on stage, as does Thom Haynes as Emma’s hypochondriac father. Khoa Pham rounds out the cast with his lively performance as the somewhat roguish Frank Churchill.
While the course of true love is predictably never smooth in any melodramatic romantic comedy, this adaptation proves to be a charming romp under the guidance of the main character, Emma Woodhouse. Her freezing of the action and direct address to the audience elevates the drama, especially when George Knightley joins her in these exchanges. Their banter offers some of the best moments of a show that delights in proving the power of romantic affection.
For more information about Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Emma, visit the website at https://sweetteashakespeare.com/emma-jane-austen-raleigh-nc-theatre/.