With a silken flow and a keen eye for the realities of 18th century women, Center Stage’s production of Pride and Prejudice is froth with substance.
Jane Austen fans may demurely balk at the liberties taken in Christopher Baker’s adaptation (where the hell is Kitty, some might quibble), but both the adaptation and direction by Hana S. Sharif have a pleasing cinematic quality, where both the dialogue and the action move swiftly along—no small feat when you consider that most of the novel is concerned with reading letters, sitting on settees, and asking guests if they would like tea.
Center Stage’s deeply charming staging combines romance with finance in the story of Mrs. Bennet’s (Mary Jo Mecca) Herculean efforts to ensure her daughters are safely married off—especially the smart, opinionated second eldest Elizabeth (Kate Abbruzzese).
Mrs. Bennet and her patient, cajoling husband (Anthony Newfield, abeam with benevolence) are reasonably confident that the family beauty Jane (Erin Neufer) will land a husband, as well as the almost tragically silly Lydia (Ali Rose Dachis, alarmingly effective as a boy-crazy simp).
At 12, Mary (played to petulant perfection by Maya Brettell) has a few years before she is put on the market, which leaves Elizabeth—Lizzie– to fret over. Independent, clever and enamored of reading, Lizzie may be an ideal Austen heroine, but that doesn’t make her exactly prime marriage material in 18th century country society.
Her initial contact with the high-and-mighty Mr. Darcy (A.J. Shively) at a ball doesn’t go well—it is dislike at first sight. She cannot help but try to knock him down a few pegs and he sniffs that she is “not handsome enough to tempt me.” They gradually overcome their less than stellar first impressions of one another, and while their journey from disdain to desire is often painful, it delivers a satisfying emotional reckoning by the end.
Baker’s subtle shift from the Elizabeth and Darcy’s love match to Mrs. Bennet’s public quest for security for her daughters is an intriguing one. Austen fans, do not despair—the wicked banter and undeniable chemistry between Elizabeth and Darcy is still very much front and center. The luminous Abbruzzese is a standout as Lizzie, who manages to give level-headedness an irresistible allure. She adds layers to Elizabeth’s character in every scene, while Shively retains the removed air of Darcy for most of the play, affectingly revealing his deep inner thoughts and feelings near the end.
Austen’s pointed and feathery commentary on society’s social climbers, schemers, hypocrites and stuffed shirts is there as well. However, there is a sharp emphasis on marriage as commerce, since the Bennet’s financial situation dictates that the estate goes to a male cousin, the splendidly unctuous parson Mr. Collins (Chris Bolan, almost voluptuous in his comic pretension), upon Mr. Bennet’s death.
Which means the girls would be penniless and homeless if they don’t marry. So for Mrs. Bennet, marriage is not just moonlight and roses, but an acceptance of the harsh truths and narrow choices facing young women in the late 1700s. Love and happiness may come later—or may not—in Mrs. Bennet’s view. Marriage is business and she must try to secure some sort of financial future for her daughters. And Mecca’s robust, scene-stealing performance masterfully conveys her mix of fierce maternal love and pragmatism. Mecca has a kindred spirit in over-the-top marvelousness in Patricia Hodges’ grander than-grand-dame turn as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a bassoon clad in sateen.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
September 11 – October 11
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $19 – $59
Details and Tickets
That Elizabeth displays so much strength and sureness of mind in such a milieu is a miracle. Sharif’s deft direction delicately reveals the women’s second-class status, as the Bennet girls often listen in behind screens and walls, or are banished to parlors—sidelines to the main action.
Center Stage’s production is a handsome one, with Scott Bradley’s two-tiered set rendered in creamy, Wedgwood china colors with softly-lit globe light fixtures and sparkling chandeliers by lighting designer Colin D. Young.
A dainty shout-out should go to Alex Koch’s projections, which range from enchanting period illustrations and verdant garden scenes to the august paintings lining the walls at Darcy’s Pemberley Estate. Ilona Somogyi’s Regency-era costumes feature high-waisted gowns in bright, botanical hues on the ladies, well-cut moss-green and blue coats in “touch me” fabrics and snappy military regalia for the gentlemen.
Looming projections of Lizzie and Darcy trading burning glances we could do without, however, since they remind you of those melodramatic freeze frames favored by soap operas.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen . Adapted by Christopher Baker . Directed by Hana S. Sharif . Featuring Kate Abbruzzese, A.J. Shively, Ali Rose Dachis,Asher Grodman, Mary Jo Mecca, Anthony Newfield, Eric Neufer, Josh Salt, Kelly McCrann, Christopher Bolan, Victoria Frings, Julia Brandeberry, Maya Brettell, Patricia Hodges, Travis Hudson, Greg Joubert, Carolyn Kashner, Sarah Rose Kearns, Ed Klein, Hillary Mazer and David Sedgwick.
Scenic Design: Scott BRadley . Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi . Lighting Design: Colin D. Young . Projections: Alex Koch, Original Music andSound Design: Broken Chord . Choreography: Paloma McGregor . Production dramaturg: Faedra Carpenter . Stage manager is Amber Dickerson, assisted by Lindsay Eberly . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
September 11- October 11 at Centerstage’s Pearlstone Theatre
Running time: 2 and a half hours with one intermission