“Emma” at Book-It

Oh that Jane Austen! There are few writers who command such a devoted following, and fewer still who wrote in the early 19th Century. If you’re one of those Austen fans, Book-It has a great treat for you with their remounting of the classic “Emma.” And for those who are not Austen fans, this is a pretty production with good acting, and a marvelous recreation of the period. Just remember, though, lives moved slowly in the early 1800s.

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Sylvie Davidson as Emma; photo by Adam Smith.

Emma, an extremely self-possessed young woman, lives with her widowed father in a small town outside of London. Although she and her friends are not gentry, they are well bred and class conscious. Manners are important, and women are the guardians of manners, hence of social graciousness. Moreover, they know that women have been put on earth to make good wives for their husbands. Despite the fact that Emma is unmarried herself, she’s consumed with the task of matchmaking for her friends . . . often with disastrous results.

This production, directed by Carol Roscoe, immerses the audience in Emma’s gentile and oh so polite life. It’s a life in which gossip plays a major role, and much of the play consists of the retelling and amplifying of rumors and speculations. Men are in formal control, but the sly woman gains informal power through manipulation, determination, control of information, and a gracious countenance. So it is with Emma, played with saucy merriment and charm by Sylvie Davidson. She’s a conniver. Her intentions are good; the results of her actions are often not.

The great strength of the production is the manner in which it captures the age and the place. There’s little for women of a certain class to do except gossip, and on this stage the secrets and assumptions are mostly shared in a minimalist but effective garden setting. Lovely English country dancing sequences enliven the production, and the costumes marvelously capture the period and the class of the characters.

In a world with slow and limited transportation options, no electronic gadgets to amuse one, and no career opportunities for women, conscribed lives move at a slow pace well captured in this production. It’s also a play that raises interesting questions about women’s lives then and now.

Through January 3, at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, (206 216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

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