The play is based on the 1815 novel about the romantic entanglements and comedic misperceptions among the members of several families in fictional rural England.

Fans of Jane Austen will leave smiling from the Vintage Theatre’s well-cast production of Emma.

The play is based on the 1815 novel about the romantic entanglements and comedic misperceptions among the members of several families in fictional rural England. The central character, Emma, is a beautiful, spoiled and strongly opinionated young woman who fancies herself a matchmaker – one who knows even better than her single acquaintances for whom they’re most ideally suited. Though romance is her favorite subject, Emma proclaims herself all but immune to matters of the heart herself, instead focusing her personal life on the care of her cantankerous, aging father.

In writing the book, Austen – known for a forthrightness out of step with the time – described Emma as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”

But actor Sara Risner, who plays the lead role in the Vintage Theatre’s production, lets us see beyond Emma’s frequent meddling and often judgmental statements to the vulnerable, naïve and likeable side of this unusual character. In the much more formal world of 19th-century England, Emma’s frankness and occasional breaches of etiquette might have been shocking to her peers. For a modern-day American audience, they’re at worst unkind, gauche or wincingly honest, and at best refreshing and humorous.

Emma features a multi-layered cast of characters with sometimes confusing relationships. Fathers, sons, daughters, in-laws and step-parents weave through the storyline. Since most of the characters are addressed by surname, it’s sometimes difficult to keep the multiple generations straight. That’s no fault of the actors, however, who bring distinct personalities to each character.

Perfect foil

The play opens with Emma attempting a match between her new friend Harriet Smith (Bethany Luhrs) and local vicar, Mr. Elton. Luhrs is convincing and appealing as the sweet and seemingly spineless Harriet – a young woman so eager for love that she’s the perfect foil to Emma — and an ideal subject for her matchmaking whims.

Damon Guerrasio is a definite standout in the role of Mr. Elton. He plays the arrogant, self-delusional vicar with larger-than-life dramatic flair and great humor – which works perfectly for this character.

Eric Carlson brings similar elan to bachelor Frank Churchill – temporarily the object of Emma’s fascination – who is slightly less buffoon-ish but equally as vain as Mr. Elton.

In stark contrast, the third eligible bachelor Mr. Knightley (Stephen Krusoe), is polite, restrained and keenly observant. Emma’s neighbor and long-time friend is an island of calm and civility among the chaos of most of the other characters, so much so that he almost escapes Emma’s notice.

We don’t see enough of Emily Gerhard’s acting ability, mostly because she’s cast as the intentionally elusive Jane Fairfax. It’s only at the show’s end that we get a glimpse at the warmer side of Jane, who is otherwise skillfully portrayed as a reserved and beautiful object of mystery.

While the conclusion is predictable, and the focus on marriage and social standing will be familiar to Austen fans, this is nevertheless a fun show. Since 18th century British society demanded polite behavior, the character’s facial expressions and body language are key, and this cast does an impressive job with both. Arched eyebrows, furtive glances and how the characters move around one another communicate as much if not more than the spoken lines, keeping Emma a fascinating study of human behavior – one with plenty of laughs.

Emma is the 130th production at the Aurora-based Vintage Theatre, and plays through Aug. 18. For tickets, visit 222.vintagetheatre.com or call 303-856-7830.

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