"Pride and Prejudice" production in Norfolk misses opportunities
By Mal Vincent
January 25, 2018
“Pride and Prejudice” might present one of the most cherished love relationships of all literature, but adapting it to the stage is no safe venture. The title will sell tickets, but Jane Austen purists are among the world’s fussiest. Don’t mess with them.
The adaptation that inhabits the Wells Theatre through Feb. 4 is faithful to the original, which is among the better characteristics of this effort by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. The writers are specialists in adaptations. Hanreddy has tackled Molière and Pirandello, among others, and Sullivan has adapted the works of Charles Dickens and Ben Hecht.
Austen’s gift for sharp and comic irony is most evident in “Pride and Prejudice,” her second novel, published in 1813. We expect any stage version to be hilarious.
As a comedy of manners, the novel delightfully pricks the balloons of pomposity and “nouveau riche” posturing. Women of the time mainly were required to get a husband (preferably rich). No more could be expected of them, and no less would be acceptable. This is the plight of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters. Minus a male heir in the family, the Bennets face losing everything.
Austen created three of the funniest characters in literature as support for her battling lovers. Only one of the three manages to hit the funny bone here.
As the directorial debut of the company’s producing artistic director, Tom Quaintance, the treatment is serviceable in providing a home for the famous characters. Blessedly, it is not a modernization. But there are too many cases of miscasting and stuffiness. Great opportunities for comedy are missed.
Lowell Byers is a tall and dashing Mr. Darcy, meeting all the requirements of a character who must range from initial arrogance to eventual insecurities in surrendering to an unusually clever woman.
Marina Shay is a surprisingly listless and vulnerable Elizabeth , a part that requires wit, charisma and spunk. Jeni Schaefer’s historically accurate period costuming does little to help differentiate Shay’s Elizabeth from her four sisters. She only comes to life three-quarters through Act I, when she faces off against the nerdish parson who seeks to marry her. One might wonder what Darcy sees in her.
Julian Stetkevych is the comic highlight, even though all is overdone, as Mr. Collins. He worships social status and is thrilled that he is “patronized” by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose haughtiness makes her a great comedic figure. She is a close kin to Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, the champion of the genre. It is remarkable that Lynda Clark manages to play the part more for melodrama than for mannered comedy – particularly her final scene. She somehow misses the flair. Strangely, Clark has had experience in playing authority – from Queen Elizabeth in “The Lost Colony” to Maria Callas in “Master Class.” So what happened here?
In turn, Julie Fishell’s shrieks as Mrs. Bennet are a bit grating given that the part is perfect for flighty foolishness. As the evening progresses, we warm a bit to her near-hysteria, but we liked her much better as Lizzie in “The Rainmaker” on this same stage.
The set is little more than an exterior facade that is meant to represent the varied wealthy homes. At the least, it needs more vines.
In the end, love wins. But with this “Pride and Prejudice” it is a narrow victory.