Great Lakes Theater treats Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with austerity
By Bob Abelman
“In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language,” begins a satirical article in a recent posting on theonion.com, “Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 16th century Venice.”
“I know when most people hear ‘The Merchant Of Venice,’ they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage or an 18th century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it’s high time to shake things up a bit,” Hiles said.
Despite Great Lakes Theater’s propensity for re-envisioning classic works, it too has gone the risky route of staging the theater version of Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” in the time, place and spirit in which it was penned and published more than 200 years ago.
The play, like the novel, tells the story of the five British Bennet sisters, whose mother is driven to marry them off to affluent suitors in the hope of assuring their financial security. This is a scenario dutifully accepted by each of the girls save Elizabeth, the second eldest. When the headstrong Lizzy meets the wealthy and handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she finds him arrogant and unattractive, and he is equally unimpressed with her. They bicker, they throw elegant barbs at one another, and of course, they fall in love by the end of the final act.
In the playbill, director/co-adapter Joseph Hanreddy calls “Pride and Prejudice” a “perfectly written novel” and treats it as a sacred text for this production. His and J.R. Sullivan’s script works hard at maintaining the work’s narrative voice and calls for fairly bare-boned staging so as not to detract from Austen’s precise prose.
Designers Linda Buchanan (scenic) and Paul Miller (lighting) have created one stationary set for all the play’s action, from which Laura Welsh Berg, as Lizzy, rarely leaves and never for long.
The set consists of a gorgeous half-circle of floor-to-ceiling wood panels divided by pillars across the rear of the thrust stage. Only a few period chairs and tables are brought in and out by servants to represent halls in luxurious estates while simple costume changes – many a matter of removing a frock designed by Martha Hally or putting on a shawl – occur onstage. Scenes change as effortlessly as the turning of pages.
Such economic staging keeps Austen’s words the focus of our attention but offers rather understated theatricality. Hanreddy’s quick pacing helps keep things lively, as do stellar performances turned in by this cast that have been refined during the show’s summer engagement at sister theater The Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
Stand-out performances include Andrew May as the ever-anguished patriarch of the Bennet clan, whose comic timing is impeccable. He is nicely matched by the over-the-top histrionics of Carole Healey’s Mrs. Bennet.
Daniel Millhouse as the carefree playboy Charles Bingley, Jodi Dominick as his snobbish sister Caroline and Eric Damon Smith as the ridiculously self-centered Mr. Collins give particularly impressive performances as well. While Berg as Lizzy and Nick Steen as Mr. Darcy are saddled with Austen’s unambiguous depictions, they do a wonderful job of letting the characters’ romantic arc take its course.
The show’s austerity may not be to everyone’s liking and, as Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles learned, “audiences may be taken aback initially by the lack of Creole accents.” But Jane Austen fans will likely be delighted by this production. CV
“Pride and Prejudice” by Great Lakes Theater
WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $13 to $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit greatlakestheater.org
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 1, 2018.
Lead image: Jillian Kates (from left), Laura Welsh Berg, Courtney Hausman, Amy Keum and Kailey Boyle as the Bennet sisters, and Eric Damon Smith as Mr. Collins. | Photo / Roger Mastroianni