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While it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, it’s also an almost universally acknowledged truth that Jane Austen’s novels make for wonderful cinematic and stage adaptations.
(The recent Netflix dud Persuasion is the rare exception in a world of delightful Austen adaptations: from contemporary updates Clueless, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Bollywood rom-com Bride and Prejudice to the BBC classic Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as the romantic lead, and many pleasing Emmas in-between.)
So it is no surprise that Silver Spring Stage’s long-awaited production of Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Christina Calvit and directed by Madeleine Smith, is utterly charming. The source material, after all, is arguably one of the best novels ever written.
In both Austen’s 1813 work and this play, the five Bennet sisters—beautiful, gentle Jane (Stephanie Dorius); admirable and intelligent Elizabeth or “Lizzy” (Katherine Leiden); moralistic and bookish Mary (Olivia SE Mitsos); and the giggly flirts Kitty (Imaan Khan) and Lydia (Amanda Dullin-Jones)—are all of or nearing marriageable age but lack dowries. Because the family manor, Longbourn, will bypass all the daughters for the nearest male relative, the uncouth Mrs. Bennet (Andrea Spitz) is on a mission to marry her daughters off to secure the family fortune. Mr. Bennet (Tom Howley), on the other hand, just wants to catch up on his reading.
When several young bachelors—the handsome and affable Mr. Bingley (Judah Hoobler), the equally handsome but standoffish Mr. Darcy (Nicholas Temple), the dashing, devil-may-care soldier Mr. Wickham (Peter Moses), and the boorish parson Mr. Collins (Hart Wood)—all come to Hertfordshire, there are balls, romances, almost-engagements, arguments, broken hearts, elopements, rejected proposals, and rumors … until all works out in the end. What more could we ever want in a romantic comedy?
This Pride and Prejudice revels in all the romance and beauty of Regency England, and Smith’s direction, paired with Maureen Roult’s dramaturgy, creates this sumptuous world of balls, piano recitals, and other polite leisures. There are more than 50 beautiful garments in this production—designed and crafted by Nathaniel Cavin, Nora Galil, and James Hoobler—beribboned, Empire-waist gowns in pastel hues and Grecian-inspired ringlets for the women; waistcoats, cravats, high collars, and sideburns for the men. There are delightful interludes of choreographed dances by Stefan Sittig, and Bridgid Kelly Burge’s set design, with its English countryside-painted panels, white fainting couches, and parquet flooring, all easily translate from Longbourn manor to rural gardens to the palatial Rosings Park with the help of dappled lighting, lighted sconces, birdsong, or musical cues via Don Slater for lighting and sound design.
Leiden is utterly effervescent, quick-witted, and vivacious as Lizzy. She perfectly becomes one of literature’s most irrepressible and exemplary heroines, and in Calvit’s script, she also becomes the narrator, further endearing her to the audience in whom she confides. That this is Leiden’s return to the stage after a 12-year absence is a marvel. (Local casting directors, please take note.)
Leiden leads the strong cast (with accolades to dialect coach Gary Sullivan for keeping accents in line), but there are many talented performances to highlight. As Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Howley and Spitz are a favorite odd couple. Spitz is full of verve and nerve as the indefatigable matchmaker and Howley harrumphs and unfurls his interrupted reading with the best of them, but they also have an easy affection for one another. Annie McCrone sullenly shines as Miss Caroline Bingley, frenemy of Jane and Lizzy, who sulks through her scenes with great RBF (Regency bitch face). And Mitsos, as the sermonizing Mary Bennet, creates one of the best recurring jokes in the play as she comes to life every time she can offer a long-winded moral only to be shushed again and again. But the scene-stealer is Wood as Mr. Collins, the would-be wooer of Lizzy; although many of his best Austenian lines are cut, he has the awkward gestures and voice of a parrot-in-love, squawking through his laughable proposal and his admiration for his patroness, the cold and egotistical Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Declan Cashman).
Although it’s over an hour long, the first act breezes by, full of mirth, laughter, and romantic possibilities. That is where Calvit’s script and Smith’s direction burn brightest. But, dear reader, this is a big issue with such easy and breezy adaptations. The second, longer half of Pride and Prejudice lags as we move into the more serious matters of the times and of the heart, both of which remain under-explored.
The novel deals with real issues of a strict patriarchy, including class status—who’s in and who’s out of polite society based on birth, wealth, title, or trade; the perilous state of young women without money or marriage prospects; and the antique laws of primogeniture, granting men heirs all. It’s a wicked social satire disguised as a romance novel.
Calvit’s script plays on all the eavesdropping, miscommunication, and gossiping that causes so much damage in the novel, but it always feels temporary. We trust that the truth will fix the situation. The opening tableau vivant finds all the townsfolk sharing idle gossip about the new wealthy young neighbors, the Bingleys. Often, servants huddle in corners commenting on the action, or characters across the room finish each other’s sentences. Scandals and malicious rumors then don’t really threaten romances and bright futures, they just cause delays. We know Elizabeth and Darcy will pair off, as will Jane and Bingley, with just a few bumps along the way.
But Austen’s light comedy can turn into a tragedy at any moment because, in many ways, the silly Mrs. Bennet is right: If her daughters do not marry well and Mr. Bennet dies, the whole family can lose their home and security in an instant. (Think, for a few moments, of the real implications of 15-year-old Lydia’s elopement with an indebted soldier, who has already seduced another teen girl.) These issues are mentioned and drive the plot forward, but the stakes never seem as high as they are.
This, too, affects the romance of Darcy and Elizabeth. While Lizzy is a fully realized character, Temple’s Darcy, with his furrowed brow and frown, often comes off as cold and unfeeling. The novel slowly peels back his tough exterior: Darcy is not so much prideful as protective of his friends, his younger sister, and especially of his own comfort in uncomfortable situations; he’s actually too sensitive to play the games of society well. We have too little of this in Calvit’s script, which sometimes focuses on the antics of secondary and tertiary characters rather than checking in with our brooding romantic lead. And though we get a sense of this softer Darcy in the final scenes when Temple fully relaxes his posture and face, a little more of this transformation earlier would make his rejected proposal and his later successful one ring more true. Instead, Elizabeth’s exchange with her father about her nuptials carries more emotional weight.
This production, despite its occasional slump in the second act, remains funny, bright, and beautiful throughout. It’s a little gem of a production, and one well worth seeing—whether you are an Austen lover or just want to enjoy a brilliant romantic comedy.
Presented by Silver Spring Stage, Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen, adapted by Christina Calvit, and directed by Madeleine Smith, runs through May 14 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. ssstage.org. $22–$25.