- Liz Conway (left) and Hester Lewellen splash their wit across the Lakeland stage.
As anyone knows who's munched $35/lb. popcorn while taking in a romantic comedy at the local gigaplex, the love the two leads will eventually express is in direct proportion to the degree they hate each other at the beginning. Once the sparks fly, we know they'll be staring at each other over the morning Froot Loops for decades to come. Jane Austen may not have started this trend back in the 19th century with her slyly satirical romances, but she certainly polished it to a sheen in Pride and Prejudice, the rich, gossipy tale of English class warfare (between the haves and the have-mores), mistaken first impressions, and the social powerlessness of women.
Austen's entire plot depends on the fact that women of that age could not inherit family property from the patriarch, so females had to be married off to successful men before their daddy croaked and left them out on the curb. This was especially troubling for a family such as the Bennets, whose five daughters only multiplied the problem. Lakeland Theater is now revisiting this classic via an adaptation by James Maxwell and Alan Stanford, and a handsome production it is. While there are a couple of less-than-sterling performances, the large cast brings Austen's memorable characters to life with gratifying and highly enjoyable clarity.
Among the five Bennet daughters, Elizabeth is the smartest and sassiest, turning up her nose at the wealthy Mr. Darcy because of his aloof and arrogant nature. Even with her mother fluttering about, trying to match up her necessarily co-dependent girls with anything in slacks who pulls down a respectable yearly wage, Elizabeth tartly goes her own way. Meanwhile, sister Jane is circling another eligible dude, Charles Bingley, and impulsive Lydia falls for a dashing lieutenant in the military. Once all these potential marital couplings are in play, the action unreels in ways easily predicted, if not easily remembered from the novel itself.
Given such a familiar story arc, the task is to breathe fresh life into Austen's clearly defined characters. Mitchell Fields is a seasoned actor and handles the duties of father Bennet with professional aplomb. He underplays his frequent laugh lines with an ideal mixture of familial concern and cynical dismay, as he watches his family's fortunes swirl about him. Matching him step for step is his wife, played by Mary Cunningham in dithery, hyperventilated hysteria -- but always with a smile. Indeed, much of the Bennet family is this production's strong suit: Meredith Conti (goody two-shoes Jane), Lindsey Sandham (giggly Kitty), and Mary Britta Shirring (bookworm Mary) are each spot-on. Ruth Hitchcock, who plays impulsive sis Lydia, relies a bit too much on repeated head-tossing and ringlet-flipping.
Of course, most of the attention is on the lead couple, and it's here that the Lakeland company comes up just short. Liz Conway is quick and witty as Elizabeth, and she accurately conveys the emotional roller coaster her character is riding, but she tends to push her vocal projection, flattening many of her line readings. The key role of Darcy is handed to handsome Tom Eschelman, who is a bit too thick of tongue to give Austen's sprightly words the flair required. Plus, he often seems to arrive at the proper facial expression only after a couple failed attempts. As a result, this central relationship never generates passion on either end of the love-hate spectrum. As Charles Bingley, Timuchin Aker is similarly drab, delivering his lines faithfully but without the panache of a confident stud in a social milieu tilted heavily in favor of males.
However, a couple small and juicy roles sparkle in this three-hour production. Hester Lewellen wrings every dram of wry humor as Darcy's fearsome, cane-wielding aunt Lady DeBourgh, curling her vowels into mini-screeches as she defends her nephew against the lower-class Elizabeth. Her exit, when she confronts a closed door not being opened by a servant, is priceless. And Andrew Narten is properly creepy as hypocritical Mr. Collins, the designated heir to the Bennet estate and erstwhile suitor of the Bennet girls.
Director Martin Friedman does an excellent job maneuvering his large cast around Keith Nagy's elegantly spare set, and helps his actors achieve many delightful moments. When all the sisters are on stage and in a tizzy of one sort or another, the pacing and energy perfectly capture the vibe of this female-centered household. Period costumes designed by Craig Tucker and John Larger also add verve, if not complete verisimilitude.
Far from an in-depth exploration of personal pride and class prejudice, Austen meant for her novel to lightly play against the florid literary romanticism of her age. That's why Pride and Prejudice continues to amuse audiences many generations removed. And Lakeland Theater's adaptation remains true to that mission, offering a well-crafted version of a treasured classic.