Jane Austen opens "Emma" by writing that the title character lived her whole life "with very little to distress or vex her."
Then, Emma met a distressing, vexing pandemic. When the Guthrie Theater began rehearsals on March 11, 2020, for a new stage version, company members were already getting texts from theater friends around the country whose shows had been canceled. Four days later, the show took a pause that stretched to more than two years.
Kate Hamill's adaptation of Austen's masterpiece has its world premiere Friday. Incredibly, its entire, geographically dispersed company remains intact.
"We described it as being like the string quartet on the deck of the Titanic," joked director Meredith McDonough, who stayed here and bought a house, then sold it and moved back to the New York area. "Everyone's phone alerts were: 'Broadway is closed,' 'The Humana Festival is canceled.' Somehow, we were still rehearsing, and it was like, 'We will be the only show!'"
Hamill was supposed to shuttle between here and California for another play that was postponed. "We were one of about three shows I knew of that were still in rehearsal," the playwright said.
Carman Lacivita, who plays Emma's possible love interest Mr. Knightley, remembers asking stage manager Tree O'Halloran at that first rehearsal when she thought they'd shut down.
Maybe because of that cloud, a lot of work got done during those four days, with McDonough staging much of the screwball take on Austen's tale of a 19th-century woman who believes she knows what's best for everyone.
Many of the artists had collaborated previously — "Emma" is Lacivita's fourth Hamill show — but even those who hadn't, clicked. It was so fun that Hamill worried she couldn't be objective because she was laughing until she cried at every rehearsal.
"Doing it felt so good. It was like, 'If we pretend hard this isn't all happening, it will work,'" said McDonough. "Then the Guthrie said, 'We're going to pay you all for another week while we figure out what's happening.'"
Binge-watching in a bubble and debating the safety of travel, everyone grew closer. Lacivita stuck around an extra week, catching up on "Ozark" with McDonough. Hamill stayed eight weeks before she and husband Jason O'Connell, who joined her, chose an alternative to flying.
"We walked onto a lot and said, 'We need to buy a car today.' I think the guy thought we robbed a bank. We didn't even haggle," Hamill recalled. "The guy was like, 'Oh, this is your first joint purchase as a married couple. Let me get the big red bow!' And we were like, 'You have unfortunately misread the situation. This is an escape car because we're afraid to fly.'"
Most were confident that the play — commissioned by the Guthrie, with sets and costumes still unfinished — would eventually debut, but the hope was everyone would stay together.
"We've had a group text for these 2½ years. This is a group of humans who have stayed very close," McDonough said.
McDonough visited Lacivita in New Jersey. "We kept each other posted on Equity rules and protocols, and 'Has anybody heard if we're coming back or not?'" Lacivita recounted.
Outside group chats, though, he avoided thinking about the show, especially when the whole tradition of theater-going seemed endangered. McDonough, too, thought about everything but "Emma."
"I personally found the act of thinking about making theater really emotionally draining," she said. "It felt like, 'Why read this just so I can care about it more and it can get taken away from me again?'"
Answers started coming last fall.
"I got an offer late last year to come back," said Sun Mee Chomet, who plays the compulsively chatty Miss Bates. "I didn't know at first if everyone else would return. It's actually incredible, and a testament to Kate and Meredith and the Guthrie."
Once rehearsals resumed in May, McDonough remembered little of what they'd done.
"Stage management would say, 'Where does this slice of cake come from? Does the Champagne glass that clinks here need to be real glass?'" recalled McDonough. "I'd say, 'I'm sorry. I don't see them in the script. Where are the cake and Champagne glass?' They'd say, 'They're in the rehearsal report. You requested them.'"
Memory lapses aside, everyone agreed they returned to "Emma" with greater boldness and urgency.
Hamill, who set the script aside for 18 months, said, "'Emma' is more relevant now than in 2020 because it's a lot about women's rights and what it means to try to carve a path in a society that puts strictures on you."
That's unsettling but Chomet describes "Emma" as "a bowl of joy," and McDonough said rehearsals were a blast.
"I got to actually see what this company of actors can do," said McDonough. "The things they bring to the room, it's, 'Omigod, where did you come up with that?'"
Chomet and Lacivita agree their performances inevitably changed and, given that theater always addresses the present moment, that's how it should be.
McDonough is eager to complete the process by sharing "Emma" with audiences ready to laugh:
"May we never have to go through another global pandemic in our lives, but if you go through it together and come out on the other side and, amazingly, get to do the thing you actually wanted to do together, it's awesome."
Who: By Kate Hamill, adapted from Jane Austen. Directed by Meredith McDonough.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 1 and 7 p.m. Sun.
Where: 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $15-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Protocol: Masks required.