Jesse Rebecca Pavlovic & Bailey Storey in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Photo: Little Colonel
Jane Austen’s Lady Susan
Based on the novella by Jane Austen
Adapted by Rob Urbinatii
Directed by Bill Baker
A review by Tory Parker
Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.
If you’re like me, you’re always clamoring for more Jane Austen, or Austen-inspired, content to consume. I’ll watch every film, stage, or TV adaptation, I’ll read the sequels to beloved classics that other writers have tried their hand at over the past 200 years, I’ll inhale every Regency-era romance novel and new episode of Bridgerton—I want it all. I even saw the film, Love and Friendship, that came out in 2016, which is based around the same source material as Little Colonel’s Lady Susan.
Lady Susan isn’t our typical Austen. It was written much earlier, when she was 19, and was submitted for publication well after her death. It’s written as letters to and from the characters, not in her famously lyrical prose. And, most importantly, our heroine is not a young lady in search of a husband, but a more mature widow on the hunt to survive.
But you can spot the beloved Austen biting wit and charm even if this story feels unfamiliar. As our titular Lady Susan, Jesse Rebecca Pavlovic revels in her cunning, alluring, cleverness. Her seeming laissez-faire attitude grates upon her uptight, nosy, sister-in-law, Lady Catherine Vernon (Sophia Crawford), just as it enchants every gentleman in the town and country. Her story is colored with several ridiculous men, a doe-eyed naive maiden, and even a tactless older dame.
The “meddling mama” archetype is a favorite of Austen’s, and it’s fun to see her play with that device from the mama’s perspective rather than her daughters’. Lady Susan, newly widowed, faces desolation if she does not secure a wealthy match for herself or her daughter. Despite the overall light and flirty attitude of the show, and some big laughs from Candy Thomas as Mrs. Johnson and Pat Wagner as Sir James, we know that Lady Susan’s stakes could not be higher.
Like all of Austen’s stories, we are asked to see our lead players as complex characters, with conflicting motivations, questionable decision-making, and endearing obliviousness. A bit of her magic gets lost in Lady Susan; some of that can be explained by Austen’s youth—she notably decided against publishing the work at all—and some of which rests on the shoulders of the men behind this adaptation. This play, adapted and directed by men, falls short in exploring the complicated interpersonal dynamics between women that define this beloved storyteller. It feels like a shame not to invite women into the directorial or potentially dramaturgical space for Lady Susan; when Little Colonel’s season is entirely written and directed by men, this would have been a perfect time to give one or more of the talented women in this theatrical community access to that opportunity.
There is so much incredible possibility at Little Colonel Playhouse, combined with passionate patrons and a wealth of talent, several of whom got to strut their stuff in Lady Susan, they have all the ingredients for an impactful beacon of community art. All the actors on stage are naturally charismatic, funny, hard-working artists. Some of that got distracted by shifting costumes that paraded us through several locations and decades, or long periods of absolute silence during a scene change rather than music or ambient sound to welcome us into the world.
Everyone involved is doing good, solid work—but where’s the fun in that? What is the story we are trying to tell and how is it going to change us? I don’t absorb every single Austen adaptation because they’re sweet love stories—I love them because they are stories that deeply care about the characters, especially the women, their needs and motivations, and their imperfections. And as much as I enjoyed elements of this show, I found myself wanting more of that care from this production.
Featuring Jesse Rebecca Pavlovic, Sophia Crawford, Jeremy Gutierrez, Bailey Story, Candy Thomas, Em Olson, & Pat Wagner
Jane Austen’s Lady Susan
February 2, 3, 8, 9, 10 @ 7:30 pm
February 4, 11 @ 2:00 pm
The Little Colonel Players
302 Mt Mercy Drive
Pewee Valley, KY 40056
Tory Parker, originally from West Virginia, is now a proud Kentuckian as well. In Louisville, she’s worked and/or performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company OutCast, SHOTZ, Highview Arts Center, and director Emily Grimany. She is a co-founding artist of the queer theatre collaborative, three witches shakespeare, and of Untitled Louisville Theatre Company. As a playwright, her full-length drama, Recommended for You, appears in Stage It and Stream It: Plays for Virtual Theatre, and her original works have appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe Festival.