A Truth Timelessly Acknowledged

9:45 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are more Pride and Prejudice adaptations than there need to be. I say this with the utmost affection for the story (and several vintage copies of it sitting on my bookshelf): although it is perhaps the perfect English-language novel, it's also often adapted in ways that don't necessarily capture the "bright, light, sparkling" tone or that simple contribute to culture fatigue. Daniel Elihu Kramer's Pride@Prejudice, running at Southwest Shakespeare Company through Saturday, is not one of those; indeed, it is a warm, witty comedy that is alternately genuine and tongue-in-cheek.
Photo: Southwest Shakespeare

The concept is simple enough: the story of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy, the Bingleys, and those surrounding them is told in a straightforward manner, but the cast - all but one of whom play multiple roles - frequently break the fourth wall as modern-day readers seeking and giving explanations of the novel on the internet. Everything from Wikipedia character charts to SparkNotes summaries to "I <3 Darcy" merchandise gets its moment. It's a clever conceit that means the story doesn't take itself too seriously, instead accessing the social satire and quick wit that modern readers may not notice beneath the period-drama trappings of a traditional adaptation. Under the lively direction of Kent Burnham, no detail is missed and the fourth-wall breaks are handled with a light humor that keeps them funny and refreshing, not intrusive.

A talented a cast of five portrays the entire cast of characters (as well as standing in for trees, storms, and, in one memorable instance, a deer), and they are, as Mr. Collins might say, uniformly charming. Cale Pascual skillfully switches between the good-natured (if slightly dim) Mr. Bingley, the dry, beleaguered Mr. Bennet, and the charming scoundrel Mr. Wickham, as well as filling in anytime a servant is needed to deliver a letter and narrating the "chapters" of the story. Breona Conrad displays comedic skills reminiscent of British comedienne Catherine Tate, embracing Mrs. Bennet's complete lack of self-consciousness to hilarious effect, alongside a more subdued turn as plain, practical Charlotte Lucas and background gag Anne de Bourgh.

Photo: Southwest Shakespeare
Katie Hart has perhaps the widest range to cover in the show, covering two Bennet sisters, Caroline Bingley, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as inserted moments as Jane Austen herself (more on that later). She acquits herself beautifully, with small (and, sometimes, not so small) shifts in mannerism that allow gentle, sensitive Jane to morph into haughty, manipulative Caroline Bingley, and her Lydia is appropriately petulant, a hilariously self-absorbed brat. Lady Catherine is a tricky character: written as an ineffective, over-the-top satire of the snobbish elite, but often played by grand dames of British screen and stage. Hart achieves both the icy hauteur and the delicious ridiculousness all at once (with the help of a particularly awful grand hat) - no small feat, but a very enjoyable one. And as Austen herself, she is exactly what we might hope the beloved author might be: wry, playful, reserved yet passionate, and wise.

There are perhaps no two characters in Pride and Prejudice more different than Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins. Where Darcy is aloof, handsome, and intelligent, Collins is unctuous, awkward, and foolish. It is a marvel, then, that the same actor, Kyle Sorrell, deftly portrays both characters here, and I honestly couldn't tell you which I enjoyed more. Over the years, portrayals of Darcy have gotten progressively more broody, to the point that you start to think he, Heathcliff, and Mr. Rochester should start a club. Sorrell, on the other hand, brings us a gentler, more sincere Darcy as the show goes on, and, dare I say it, a Darcy much closer to Austen's novel. His expressions and line delivery remind us that, despite his proud, brusque nature, his feelings for Elizabeth are very real, and his character development is truly heartwarming. But with a ruffle of his hair and the addition of spectacles and the world's most horrible neck-ruff/bowtie combination, Sorrell transforms into the lisping, simpering Mr. Collins, a scene-stealing performance that had the audience in stitches.
Photo: Southwest Shakespeare
Without Elizabeth Bennet, there is no Pride and Prejudice, and Pride@Prejudice is lucky in that regard to have Alison Campbell as Austen's great heroine. Like Sorrell, Campbell accesses the parts of her character that can get overlooked in pop culture. Lizzy is not always likeable: she is loyal, lively, and clever, true, but she is also judgmental, prone to confirmation bias, and capable of incredibly harsh words. Campbell brings us a three-dimensional Elizabeth whose journey of self-realization is the heart and soul of the story. She has stellar chemistry with each of her scene partners, particularly Sorrell, to the great joy of the audience.

There's one more element that must be mentioned, and that's the insertion into the play of Jane Austen herself, in the form of letters written by a young Austen to her sister Cassandra and, later in life, to her niece Fanny. Where the references to internet questions and P&P movie adaptations are funny and straightforward, Austen's letters are more bittersweet. The selected letters follow her relationship with Tom Lefroy, the Irish lawyer who often emerges as the prime candidate for Austen's own "great romance," its dissolution, and a wiser, older Austen counseling her niece about the importance of genuine love in marriage. It's a bittersweet reminder that, despite writing some of literature's greatest love stories, Austen herself had a life with its fair share of disappointments. In the play's final moments, Austen watches, smiling, from her writing desk as her two most beloved characters share a kiss.
Photo: Patrick Walsh
There is a reason that Austen's works survive and are continuously developed into new forms: a heartfelt belief in the goodness of humanity, the hilarity of its foibles, and the possibility of joy. What a blessing it has been to centuries of audiences that Austen remained, as the play itself reminds us, "not afraid of happy endings."