Pride and Prejudice may offer more thrills in the roller-coaster courtship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Persuasion offers more swooning romance. But thanks to film adaptations ranging from Alicia Silverstone's loose approximation of the heroine in 1995's "Clueless" to Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow's more faithful roles, everyone knows Emma. And as with all great fictional characters, we acknowledge the Emma in ourselves.
She's the busybody who thinks she knows best, setting out to match couples as she sees fit, only to discover that the mysteries of the heart aren't so clear-cut. Including, it turns out, her own.
Nisi Sturgis, who plays the title role in Pioneer Theatre Company's stage adaptation opening Friday, Feb. 17, said that what makes Emma so luminous by the story's end is the manner in which the character is humbled and forever altered upon discovering the magnitude of her errors.
"I'm falling in love with her more every day," Sturgis said. "She becomes less judgmental, and to be on that journey is a beautiful experience. Hers isn't the realization of 'Oh, I was wrong about this person.' It's the realization that 'I was wrong in what I thought.' We always want to see that in people, and it occurs so rarely. It's the journey of what happens when people earn the trust of their own heart."
For fans who relish the author's every turn of phrase via the written word, or find themselves hiding under the sofa at news of yet another film or stage adaptation of their beloved Jane, the thought of adapting Emma to stage can seem suspect. Some of the novel's most sumptuous moments arise not from dialogue, but from Austen's exquisite way of rendering emotion through prose, such as the moment when Emma negotiates her heart's desire in the face of someone she'd always admired, but never openly held affection for:
"What did she say? Just what she ought,of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair and to invite him to say more himself."
The pleasure of reading Austen, said literary critic A.C. Bradley, is constantly sharing Austen's point of view through prose even as readers are aware of how different matters seem to her characters. "If you fail to perceive and enjoy this, you are not really reading Jane Austen," Bradley warned.
Sturgis and Michael Sharon, who plays Mr. George Knightley, have no qualms about the strength of Austen's story communicated through Jon Jory's script chosen by Pioneer Theatre Company. Jory's Austen adaptations have been well-received in no fewer than 12 countries, and he's just wrapped up an adaptation of Persuasion. The commercial successes of other Emma adaptations before Jory's suggest, too, that no one need worry.
Sharon said Jory's adaptation never fails to play Austen's dialogue at just the right key and, perhaps most important, just the right volume given the context.
"He's amplified the difference in scenes so that one with 12 people picking strawberries and two people in private conversation have just the right effect," Sharon said. "It's always tricky dramatizing a story that a large part of the audience already knows the story to, while trying at the same time to keep all the surprises fresh for people who don't know the story at all. Jory does that, and we hope to do the same in this production."
Sturgis said that even without Austen's prose, her dialogue is strong enough to provide anchors that navigate the entire story in ways that retain the experience of reading the book itself.
"This was a period in which people spoke in paragraphs, and wit was a kind of weapon," she said. "The way you balance your sentences is almost like you're going up a flight of stairs carrying a ball. You can't help but trip, and every time you do, it's great fun."
Pioneer Theatre Company brings Jane Austen's meddlesome heroine to the stage.
When • Feb. 17-March 3. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East on the campus of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
Info • $25-$44. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.