Production photos by Luis Escobar, Reflections Photography Studio

PCPA’s Emma was onstage March 2-19, 2023 at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, and is scheduled June 22-July 2, 2023 at Solvang Festival Theater.

 So . . . PCPA’s West Coast premiere of Emma ends as it begins: with a delightful surprise you surely will not see coming, even if you are a Jane Austen fan who knows the novel backward and forward. That’s because these delights (and several others) are the work of an astute director and her crew whose interpretation of Joseph Hanreddy’s adaptation, based on the book written in 1815, includes some surprisingly appropriate modern music and some eye-catching costume and set elements.

Polly Firestone Walker’s approach to Hanreddy’s play, which in its three-hour length encompasses every principal character and scene in the novel, successfully encourages each of her actors to inhabit a distinct and singular personality, without allowing caricature to intrude.

Emily Trask as Emma

It helps that she has a cast of always reliable PCPA veterans to work with, including an effervescent Emily Trask who delightfully presents the matchmaking misadventures of Emma; Jordan Stidham, who can effectively deliver an Austen witticism with panache, as Mr. Knightley; and the company’s artistic director Mark Booher, typically only seen by PCPA audiences introducing each show but here creating an ailing, apprehensive, but appealing Mr. Woodhouse, the father who dotes on Emma even as she seeks to meddle in other people’s affairs. George Walker and Kitty Balay, with perfect timing and flair, deliver memorable performances as the pretentious Mr. Elton and the hapless Miss Bates.

Julia Mae Abrams as Harriet, Lottie Arnold as Jane, Cat Evans as Mrs. Elton, and Chris Coffey as Mr. Martin are notable in their contributions to this version of Emma’s world. It helps that they, and the rest of this 16-person cast, have nicely mastered the speech of appropriate English classes with help from voice/dialect coach Michael Brusasco.

Polly Firestone Walker and scenic designer Abby Hogan wisely decided to display this production on one charming set, with a few appropriate pieces of furniture (moved around by cast members in quite a mannerly way as befits the period) and one flight of movable stairs to make the many scene changes as simple as possible. Likewise, costume designer Jacqueline Heimel keeps each character in a single outfit (keeping to classical Regency style throughout) with occasional additions such as a coat, hat, or parasol as needed. The pleasing color palette of both designs is complemented by the always-effective lighting design of Jennifer “Z” Zornow. Putting Emma in a lovely lemon color highlights her high-spirited nature and contrasts nicely with the pastels that surround her.

As Emma and Mr. Knightley circle each other toward their inevitable happy ending, the one area that bears examining is the length of time it takes them to get there.

The play has many scenes, almost all required if we must hit all the points in Austen’s beloved plot. But this contributes to the show’s more than three-hour running time (including a 15-minute intermission), which might be problematic for some audience members. What to do?

Playwright Joseph Hanreddy. Photo by Charlotte Alexander

Cut some dialog or otherwise streamline some scenes in the play itself? Actually doable, given that Joe Hanreddy has been working with PCPA and the director to develop this premiere since it went into rehearsals. He was present for the show’s opening on the Marian Theatre stage in Santa Maria.

Take another look at the couple of songs and several dances (choreographed beautifully by Jay Brenneman) that, while certainly entertaining, are not strictly necessary to move the plot along?

Eliminate the distraction of repositioning the set’s movable staircase so often to re-set the scene? This rethinking of a small bit of stage business might not save that much time, but it fits Mr. Woodhouse’s complaint, “Why must everything change?”

Even without changes, PCPA’s production of Emma is a delicious and disarming treat for Jane Austen fans, and it easily could serve as a fitting introduction to her work for others. With two opportunities to enjoy the show, now through March 19 in Santa Maria and June 22 to July 2 in Solvang, there is every reason to experience Austen’s captivating work reimagined for the stage by this talented creative team.

:: Charlotte Alexander

Editor’s Note: Audiences can enjoy a post-show talk-back with the cast and crew following the performance on March 10, or a post-show discussion with the director following the performance on March 12.