“Cheer from Chawton: A Jane Austen Family Theatrical” isn’t so much a play about Jane Austen as it is a play with the beloved and revered novelist. One could even consider “Cheer from Chawton,” which opens the South Carolina Shakespeare Company season, a play date with Austen. (What, no Shakespeare to open a Shakespeare company’s season? More on that later.)
“Cheer from Chawton” was written by Karen Eterovich, who will perform the one-woman production Friday and Saturday at Drayton Hall Theatre. Austen, an 18th century English romantic who weaved social commentary into her work, wrote the widely read books “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park” and “Emma.”
The play is set on the eve of the publication of “Emma,” as Austen spends time with her family. Austen, it has been reported, didn’t travel very far distances from home, so she was very close to those who lived around here. And it being the 18th century, there wasn’t much, comparative to today, in the form of ready entertainment.
“Well, this is a way we’d see Jane Austen stand up with her family,” Eterovich said. “I’ve envisioned the audience was Jane’s family, which is why the audience participation.”
The fourth wall of this production, which Eterovich has performed at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, has been shattered.
“I will be out in the audience, dancing, shaking hands, talking,” she said. “It’s all really part of the fun. I think that people nowadays want something more interactive.”
In “Cheer from Chawton,” named for the village where Austen lived as she published her work, Eterovich is attempting to convey a sense of Austen’s strength.
“The idea of forging ahead, of not giving up, of facing incredible odds. You realize that during her lifetime her name wasn’t attached to her books because it wasn’t proper,” Eterovich said, referring to the title pages of Austen’s books that credited the novel to “By a Lady.” “The fact that she continued to write, the fact that she found a profession in middle age when women face all types of obstacles is phenomenal.”
Eterovich, who earned a master’s degree in acting from USC in 1989, has had a respected theater career. Eterovich said Austen’s body work, while not at prodigious, ranks with Shakespeare’s.
“She was able to take the literature of the time and distill it and simplify it and make it universal so that you have many more people reading Jane Austen today,” said Eterovich, who has starred in and toured globally with “Love Arm’d, Aphra Behn & Her Pen,” a play about Behn, one of England’s first professional female writers.
Austen continues to enjoy pop culture revivals. Keira Knightley starred in the 2005 film “Pride & Prejudice,” and in 2008 the BBC aired a series based on “Sense and Sensibility.” In 1995, Emma Thompson starred in the Ang Lee-directed “Sense and Sensibility.” Thompson won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
And who could forget watching Colin Firth – as Mr. Darcy – emerge from the pond at Pendleton in the 1995 BBC adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”? That hit series, shown on A&E and still airing on upper cable tier channels, spawned the resurgence that continues today.
And now the South Carolina Shakespeare Company. In October, the company, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, will stage “Pride and Prejudice” at Saluda Shoals Park and Finlay Park.
“It’s a pop culture thing right now and we just wanted to hit on that,” said Linda Khoury, the company’s artistic director. “We’re definitely on the wave of something with Austen.
“All of our shows this year have comedy. For the most part, we wanted to do something as a thank you to Columbia and the state. We wanted to do classics that were after Shakespeare.”
No, really, where is Shakespeare? “I Hate Hamlet,” playwright Paul Rudnick’s story about an actor cast as Hamlet who is scared of the role, only kind of counts. Who is making the Bard of Avon step aside?
“She was kind of like Shakespeare in that she had a masterful ability to observe humans,” Khoury, who has been with the company since its inception, said of Austen. “She was just so clear about it, about her time.
“He still reveals the things we all share, our emotion, our experiences, our passion, that doesn’t change. She just happens to be a more modern voice.”
The Shakespeare Company, Khoury said, has a classical repertoire, but it also has contemporary goals and aspirations. Why not trying something different? After all, it was Shakespeare who, in “Macbeth, wrote “Let every man be master of his time.”
“And it has gone so fast,” Khoury said of the company’s first 20 years.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.