Jane Austen's classic 19th-century novel of manners and morals, Pride and Prejudice, has undergone a truly weird range of reinterpretations, from Bridget Jones's Diary, an off-Broadway musical, and a novel with the sub-title Hidden Lusts to versions involving Mormons, a zombies-and-ninjas mashup, and (in an Elton John-funded movie, reportedly) a seven-foot-high alien. Clever, and all, but the classics also deserve a little unalloyed love. So we are profoundly relieved that veteran director Christopher Price's production of Pride and Prejudice, at The Theater Project in Brunswick, is reverently, beautifully classical.
DREAM PAIRING Elizabeth Chambers as Elizabeth Bennett and Ian Carlsen as Mr. Darcy.
Better yet, it is classical without the frills: Empire waists and the strains of period concertos are about the extent of the adornment in Price's excellent production, which grants Austen's language and characters their rightful central place. Pride and Prejudice showcases an excitingly larger cast than usual for this theater, and features many accomplished local actors in their Theater Project debuts. Leading the cast is a dream pairing of Elizabeth Chambers and Ian Carlsen as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, the young Brits of marrying age whose inevitable love is at first thwarted by the play's title afflictions.
Chambers and Carlsen have long been two of my favorite actors for their subtlety and intelligence, and to have them together in service to Austen's wit is quite a treat. They have great fluency with both the tricky artifice of her language and the raw feeling just beneath all that British articulateness. Chambers gives Elizabeth marvelous range and depth, and reveals her as a deft navigator amid her complicated family, whether consoling her older sister Jane (Andrea Lopez, gracefully), humoring her mother (a frenetic and funny Tootie Van Reenen), or sharing the exasperation of her father (David Butler, with long-suffering humor). As for Carlsen, in as little as a gaze or the set of his mouth, his Darcy's casual, aristocratic arrogance is pitch-perfect — watch the dyspeptic but oh-so-slight curve of his lips as he surveys Elizabeth and the other society women he finds, at best, "tolerable."
As Mrs. Bennett goes about her hysterical attempts to marry off as many of her daughters as possible, their story shifts rapidly between scenes, and Price's direction and set design handle this challenge elegantly. His understated set — mauve interiors, a simple wood table and chairs downstage, and a few garden topiaries upstage — easily evokes both wealth and a range of locations. As for pacing, scenes frequently time-lapse into each other, with Elizabeth simply turning from one conversation to another taking place hours or days hence.
As the sagas unfold, this show does particular justice to Austen's insightful portraits of family and society: Among the Bennett sisters, Elizabeth is the most discerning; Jane, though simpler, is more generous of heart; Mary (Maddie Kay) is a bookish eccentric; and Lydia and Kitty (Annabella Palopoli and Meghan McGuire) would be listening to Justin Bieber and saying "like" all the time if transposed to the present. That's a lot of sororal personalities, and it's impressive how authentically Price's actors convey the true feel of close, often dissonant family dynamics, with their range of eye-rolls and bit tongues, unwitting cruelty, careful wordings, and, beneath it all, deep loyalty.