This isn’t going to be a typical article for me. It’ll be more personal because I’ll delve into my wife’s private life, while also being outside my wheelhouse because I’ll be reviewing a play instead of a movie. But I promise it’ll be fun. And if you stay with me to the end, you might just read something that will forever change the way you think of one of the main characters of Emma.
A few months ago, my wife, hungering for normal human relationships slashed off by the lockdown, reached out to her old high school friends online and managed to organize a large group of them to start video-chatting on a daily basis. It’s been wonderful to see so many good women who have done great things with their lives come together to support each other.
One friend in my wife’s group stands out. She’s earned multiple college degrees, starred in numerous plays, mastered a variety of musical talents, traveled the world conducting orchestras, taught in prestigious schools, and is an all-around accomplished woman. Her name is Dr. Erica Glenn, and everyone in her friend group knew from an early age that she would be outstanding in terms of her intelligence, creativity, and beauty. But she’s also incredibly humble and kind.
My wife was excited to hear that this month Erica would begin playing the lead role in a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma in the Hale Center Theater Orem (HCTO) just a mile or so from our home. We bought tickets to see it opening night last Monday, and I must say it did not disappoint. I’d like to share the biggest impressions the play made on me. It turns out to be an appropriate time to discuss this play because a 2020 film adaptation of Emma was nominated for two Oscars (Best Makeup and Costumes), and SportsBettingDime gave it a 45% chance of winning the latter category, though it lost to another film I know nothing about. Funny coincidence.
I have an interesting perspective on the play because I’ve never read the book, and I was only vaguely familiar with the plot outline going into it. Without further ado, here is why I’m a fan of Emma.
Setting the Stage
Let’s talk about the theater itself. The HCTO stage is surrounded on all sides by the audience, and there’s a circular portion in the middle that sometimes elevates an actor or actress who’s the focal point of a scene while the circle on its periphery spins the other actors around. I like the revolving stage, allowing each quadrant of the audience to see characters’ faces in turn. The actors expertly balance where each scene’s action takes place so that no part of the audience ever feels disconnected or forgotten. It’s an incredible juggling act, and I can’t even fathom the logistics of it.
Speaking of which, the scene transitions are wonderful. The actors are so quick to pick up and leave and come back with the proper props. There were a lot of fragile-looking glasses on tables, but not a single accident. During the intermission, my wife noted that in some scene changes, different objects descended from the ceiling. I hadn’t noticed that over the first half, so I paid closer attention in the second. I was rewarded by the beautiful sight of chandeliers coming down to signify the levels of stateliness of certain rooms and residences.
A Great Start
The opening scene did a good job bringing me up to speed fast on the characters and where they are at in life. I instantly liked Mr. Knightley (played by Will Ingram). I could gather that he was right about Emma Woodhouse from the very start. She takes credit for a wedding she had little part in. She merely guessed two people’s affections correctly, and Mr. Knightley tries to warn her that it was beginner’s luck, and she’d better not try it again. But she knows best, so she doesn’t let his warning stop her from pressing forward willfully to her next matchmaking opportunity.
The most heartbreaking scene to me is the one where Emma encourages a young lady she’s recently taken under her wing not to get married to a farmer after he proposes to her. The young lady is Harriet Smith and the farmer is Robert Martin. The two are clearly perfect for each other, and she’s fallen head over heels in love with him, but Emma is convinced that he’s unworthy of her. It’s a brilliant performance as she cleverly manipulates Harriet into doubting her own feelings by dropping subtle hints through her reactions and inferences. If I hadn’t remembered that this story has a happy ending, I might have actually hated Emma after this part.
The most interesting thing about this scene is that it reminded me of something I had seen in another piece of entertainment long ago. I couldn’t put my finger on it until after the play ended, and now I’m kicking myself for not including Emma in an article I wrote two years ago. You see, this scene plays out just like one in Part 1 Chapter 12 of The Fountainhead. Catherine Halsey, a nice young woman, breaks down in tears one evening and asks an ambitious young man named Peter Keating to marry her immediately. They’ve been courting for years, and they both want to get married, but he keeps finding excuses not to. After Catherine leaves to get ready for the elopement, Peter has to face his mother’s wrath. Mrs. Keating wants her son to marry the daughter of a rich man, not some common girl. She pretends not to care about his decision and insists he not listen to her advice, but it’s pure manipulation. He begs for her advice, and she lets him have it. After hours of coercion, abuse, and threats appealing to his ambitious nature and wearing down his resolve, she finally releases her son. He trudges to Catherine’s house to tell her they won’t be getting married that day. It turns out that this is a pivotal moment because both of them end up hopelessly miserable and alone at the end of the book. Thankfully, Harriet and Robert end up together in their story after suffering through many hardships. But I easily could have included Emma in my list of other films/stories contained in The Fountainhead.
As I noted, I’m not wholly unfamiliar with the story of Emma. I remembered something about Emma trying to set up a friend with a gentleman, but it goes all wrong when he reveals that he’s been interested in Emma the whole time, not her friend. I caught on quickly that the friend is Harriet and the gentleman is Mr. Elton. The play does a great job creating situations in which Mr. Elton’s intentions are ambiguous. I can believe that Emma wouldn’t realize that he’s constantly flirting with her when she’s so blindly following a script of her own. She finally has to turn him down flat, which leads to all kinds of awkwardness and hilarity.
Matt Baxter’s Mr. Elton is portrayed as a very zaftig, gregarious character who is surprisingly light on his feet. He keeps showing up after that horribly embarrassing scene, but now he has an insufferable new wife in tow. My wife pointed out to me afterward that Mrs. Elton is played by an actress (Meg Flinders) who also plays an old lady and Robert Martin’s sister. That made my amusement at her performance much greater because she pulled off all three roles perfectly. She’s so versatile. She does a fantastic job playing an annoying prig, a senile kook, and a fiery family member full of righteous indignation.
Sometimes audience interactions with the actors and actresses can yield surprising, humorous results. The audience is supposed to be an unnoticed spectator, but at one point, Harriet was absolutely shocked by a revelation (I can’t remember what it was), and she walked around in disbelief. She turned to an audience member, and he put his hands up in a shrug. It was so funny and perfectly timed. As we were walking out of the theater, the Harriet actress (Calee Gardner) was waiting to greet the audience, and I chanced to hear her share some warm words with that audience member she had interacted with. She thanked him for being such a good sport, and he said he was delighted to be part of the play for a moment.
Emma Was Always in Love, She Just Didn’t Know It
My wife pointed out she loves that the play emphasizes the fact that Emma was truly in love with Mr. Knightley all through the years they’ve known each other, even though she had only thought of him as a brother. Her sister is married to his brother, so it would be rather coincidental and funny if the two of them ever fell in love and did the same. But that’s exactly what happens.
It took her friend Harriet fancying herself in love with Mr. Knightley and trying to win his affections for Emma to finally realize what he means to her. And I love that her realization takes place after Mr. Knightley’s big scene where he reveals that he has had to guard his heart for years because he doesn’t think she’ll ever return his affections. For some reason, his dejection isn’t as hard to take as Emma’s. I suppose it’s because we spend so much more time with Emma, and we get to see her fail time and time again to understand others’ emotions and intentions that it’s glorious to see her ultimately make a correct judgment that will positively impact her own happiness as well as his.
An Incredible Performance
I haven’t praised Erica’s performance enough yet. My wife pointed out her friend to me as soon as she appeared on stage. She is incredible! Some of the best moments are when she freezes a moment in her mind, the lighting changes, and suddenly we get to see everything from her perspective. She fancies herself a puppeteer guiding those around her together and always remaining aloof herself. It’s impossible for me to dislike Emma because, despite her imperfections, she is self-aware enough to suffer remorse for her scheming and manipulative actions once she sees their sad consequences brought to fruition.
Even the moments when another character is the focus of the scene, Emma is still hard to take your eyes off. Sometimes she’s to the side of the stage watching the events unfolding with a knowing smile, scoff, or startled look of umbrage. She is the audience in many scenes because we are on her level nearly the whole time. We are supposed to think we fully understand a particular situation until the rug is pulled out from under us. I’m amazed how the actress can say so much with her facial expressions and eyes. She gets the lion’s share of the dialogue, but even her silence doesn’t stop her from making her presence felt in every scene.
There is some serious singing talent in those actors and actresses. My favorite scene in the play involves a pianoforte. It presents a perfect situation for Emma to learn humility. She starts out by feeling so good about being able to show off her musical talent to her friends, but it ends by her being completely upstaged by a girl she sees as a rival, Jane Fairfax (played by Hanna Schneck). And can that girl sing! She hits an extraordinarily high note as she takes over Emma’s song and wows the crowd. It’s not long after that experience that Emma begins to change for the better and admit maybe she doesn’t know best on every subject, notably in the love department. It’s particularly funny to remember that Erica is a gifted musician in real life, so every time she jeers at musicians as suitors or fails to play a musical piece perfectly, it’s truly all an act.
The song that Harriet sings about Robert is equal parts touching and comical. She keeps reprising it every time she thinks of the man she loved and lost. She stares off dreamily and starts singing the lovely tune. Something about its seriousness struck me as particularly funny each time it showed up, especially at the end. By that point, Emma thinks that she irreparably burned that bridge, preventing Harriet and Robert from ever getting married, but she is proven wrong in the best way when Harriet starts singing once more. This time, however, it’s not a song of longing but one of fulfillment. She’s going to marry that farmer, and Emma couldn’t be happier for her.
And now at last we come to the heart and soul of Emma. Mr. Knightley. I already noted how much I love the way the two of them came together. It’s not so much that they fell in love as they realized that they had always been in love. Even when she accepts his marriage proposal (which was charming in and of itself because she has to point out he forgot to get down on one knee), there’s one issue they can’t agree on.
She refuses to call her newfound love Mr. Knightley by his first name of George for a reason she never names. But I think it’s because she never wants to forget in all the happy days stretching ahead of them that for many years in the past he missed her nightly. By George, I think I’ve got it!
One Last Note
For opening night, the performance was flawless. It’s amazing that the actors and everyone else involved in the production did everything perfectly on the first try. We didn’t get a chance to talk with Erica after the show because she was busy getting show notes from the director. But my wife texted her shortly after, and we got to share our thoughts on the play. That was when I first started thinking hard about everything I liked about it.
My wife shared my Pride and Prejudice article with her friend, and it was then that Erica invited me to write about my experience watching her Emma play. I happily took her up on that offer. In 20 minutes, I wrote more than 600 words of rough notes about all the things I wanted to say, which I then honed and expanded to more than four times that original length. It’s like I got to watch the play twice because writing this article has been just as fun as what I experienced in the theater. I highly recommend the play of Emma to anyone looking to smile and laugh and surrender to joy for a few hours. You can get tickets to it and other plays at the HCTO by clicking the link at the start of this article.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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