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Great Lakes Theater’s witty, sparkling ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is just what we need (review)

October 8, 2018

Great Lakes Theater’s witty, sparkling ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is just what we need (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – More than 200 years after its publication, Jane Austen’s witty and winsome novel of love and manners in Regency England is as relevant as the day she penned it.

“Pride and Prejudice” is one of the most popular books in the English language for good reason – make that several good reasons. From its delicious language to its myriad laughs to its universal tale of romantic longing to its enchanting descriptions of Regency manners and machinations, to hunky Mr. Darcy, the novel’s enduring appeal is obvious. But it’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, a feminist before her time, yet a woman not afraid to admit she has erred and has much to learn, who is the heart of “Pride and Prejudice.”

So the casting of “Lizzie” is key.

Great Lakes Theater couldn’t have done better in their choice of longtime company member Laura Welsh Berg as the proud second-eldest Bennet sister.

All of the casting is stellar in Great Lakes sparkling adaptation of the classic. Nick Steen is perfect as moody Mr. Darcy, a damaged man with a surfeit of pride and heart of gold. Carole Healey nearly steals the show as Mrs. Bennet, whose outrageous silliness hides the very real fact that matching off her daughters is a matter of great seriousness in a time when women couldn’t work and in a family where they would not inherit. Andrew May’s understated Mr. Bennet gets to deliver many of the best of Austen’s lines. And Eric Damon Smith as the ridiculous Mr. Collins, who voices many of the conventional beliefs of the time, is a hoot. The supporting cast is delightfully rounded out, especially the lovely Jillian Kates as stoic eldest Bennet sister, Jane, and Daniel Millhouse as genial Mr. Bingley.

No expense is spared in big screen adaptations of Austen’s novel of sprawling countryside and rich drawing rooms. Guest director Joseph Hanreddy and scenic designer Linda Buchanan have come up with an ingenious stage solution: a one-set half-circle that mimics the appearance of wrought iron or filigree and serves as drawing room, ballroom and multiple estates. Stage hands dressed as servants move period furniture in and out to change the scenes. Cast members utilize the Hanna aisles as to convey travel between houses.

Costume changes are almost as fluid, as the sisters and other women remove over-frocks and shawls and tie on sashes to change from day dress to ball gowns.

Such economic yet evocative use of space and dress allows Hanreddy and company to shine the spotlight where most warranted: on Austen’s precise dialogue. Two centuries later, her insight into human nature is as sharp as ever .

As mousy Mary (Courtney Hausman) says “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Or course, ultimately it is Lizzie and Mr. Darcy’s relationship that provides the play’s emotional heft as it moves from dislike to “it’s-complicated” to a deep love. Austen’s social commentary never sacrificed true emotion, nor does Hanreddy’s adaptation, which at 2-and-a-half hours sacrifices very little of Austen’s novel.

In a time of such political rancor and divisiveness as today, Austen’s witty, infinitely entertainingly yet sharply insightful commentary on human nature may be just the tonic we need.

REVIEW

Pride and Prejudice

What: Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Directed by Hanreddy.

When: In repertory with “Mamma Mia” through Sunday, Nov. 4.

Where: Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $15-$89; students sit in any seat at any performance for $13. Visit greatlakestheater.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (plus intermission).

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