Jane Austen would be proud.
Not proud as in smug, but happy that her beloved 1800s novel “Pride and Prejudice” has been adapted faithfully and in a thoroughly entertaining manner by playwright James Maxwell.
The adaptation is on-stage through Sunday at the Cleveland Playhouse.
By eliminating some of the book’s wordy narration, Maxwell manages to condense Austen’s humorous but often rather long-winded and difficult-to-read novel into a laugh-out-loud, digestible two hours and 15 minutes while keeping the story’s essence: The foolishness and naiveté of rural English folks living during England’s Regency period (1811-1820).
Costume designer Gail Brassard has created period-perfect, long flowing dresses to establish the era.
During this time, a poor young woman’s only hope of financial security was to marry a wealthy young woman.
Austen apparently considered this standard overly simplistic and gullible: Isn’t the personality of the man something else to consider?, Austen wonders.
Mrs. Bennett, the mother of five daughters, is the target of much of Austen’s ridicule.
There is little else important to this bi-polar-like mother of five daughters than seeing her offspring married to well-off men. When all goes well on this front, she is filled with unbridled joy. During the slightest setback, you’d think one of her daughters just called her a dirty name or wished her death.
At one point in the play, after daughter Elizabeth Bennett’s initial refusal to marry her cousin, her mother exclaims, “I do not speak to ungrateful daughters who refuse every offer made to them!”
Chaon Cross, a plump and vibrant actress, holds nothing back in her hysterical portrayal of Mrs. Bennett. It is a performance characterized by high, sustained shrieks, elongated crying episodes and overjoyed expressions of joy.
There is nothing natural about Cross’ performance, but when it comes to playing Mrs. Bennett, the more the funnier.
In Austen’s book and this adaptation, Mrs. Bennett’s melodramatic manners are balanced out nicely by the understated, at times apathetic Mr. Bennett.
Bill McGough deftly plays Mr. Bennett with a deadpan, dry sense of humor, and deft comic timing.
While production director Peter Amster emphasizes the silliness of characters such as Mrs. Bennett, he gives equal weight to the story’s central conflict between Elizabeth Bennett and the well-off Fitzwilliman Darcy. He represents just the type of groom Mrs. Bennett would love for any of her daughters But, Elizabeth perceives Darcy as arrogant and proud, and cannot bring herself to marry him. Even though Darcy grows fond of Elizabeth, she cannot shake her first impression of him.
In Austen’s novel and Maxwell’s adaptation, the change in Elizabeth’s attitude occurs gradually, and therefore convincingly. Darcy, meanwhile, undergoes a believable transformation from smug and arrogant to tender and heartfelt.
In the Play House production, there is palpable tension between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, played by Chaon Cross and Fitzwilliam Darcy, respectively.
Cross gives Mrs. Bennett an independent, spirited and stubborn air. Through her impressive portrayal, Mrs. Bennett only gradually and imperceptibly warms up to Darcy.
Jason Bradley speaks in a condescending voice as Darcy, bringing out the character’s arrogance. The actor’s posture brings out Darcy’s personality as well: He folds his hands behind his back and stands tall and proud. Degnan’s Darcy undergoes a convincing transformation to a more modest, caring human being.
Austen obviously believes in human beings’ capacity to change: Bennett and Darcy work out their differences and end up marrying. But, her viewpoint isn’t entirely optimistic. Darcy’s bitter and spiteful aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has her own prejudice Elizabeth’s lower class status, and never ends up on good terms with Elizabeth. She is as proud as her nephew, and Annabel Armour gives her the requisite bitterness and hatred in her voice.
Austen’s satire in “Pride and Prejudice” can be biting, but mostly this is a feel-good, lighthearted romance with a fairy tale-like ending.
Playwright Maxwell has done Austen and her fans proud with a faithful, fun and funny adaptation.