Pride and Prejudice

PlayMakers Rep
Through April 19

One thing you have to love about theater people is their nerve. Would you be willing to modify a text that is nearly sacred to legions of Jane Austen worshipers and premiere it opposite the Final Four and while Colin Firth, the actor who most perfectly embodied Austen’s difficult hero Mr. Darcy, was sporting around nearby in a cerulean snap brim? No, me neither.

But that’s what the PlayMakers Repertory Company did April 4 in Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre, and it says much about the PRC’s revived reputation that there was a nearly full house.

This P&P was adapted for the stage by Jon Jory, who for 32 years was producing director at the influential Actors Theatre of Louisville; he also founded the important Humana Festival of New American Plays in that city. There is no doubt that he knows what works on stagewhat separates the theatrical from the literaryor that he applied that knowledge during the radical reductions necessary to make a one-evening-length stage play from Austen’s leisurely paced book. He found a successful device to replace Austen’s confidential relations with the reader, and by extracting the most dramatic incidents and best-loved lines and stringing them into a story, he created a fast-flowing romantic comedy from Austen’s droll meditations on the forms and philosophies of marriage.

If in doing so, he wreaked havoc on Austen’s beautiful structural symmetries and carefully balanced character studieswell, it makes an enjoyable play, even if a little lopsided. Nearly all of Austen’s characters in P&P are paired with at least one other, so that the contrasts between them may quietly illumine both without the author having to belabor her points, and repeat readers of the book will keenly feel the absence of those amputated from the stage play and the consequent removal of Austen’s subtle character-based analyses. However, there are only a couple of serious distortions (and a few unnecessary modifications to speeches perfect in their original form), and one can always go home and re-read the book. The danger here is not so much that those who know the book will be dissatisfied, as it is that those who have never read it will be misled by the play to underrate Austen’s genius, and will never know the depths beneath the sparkling surface.

The PlayMakers production is beautifully mounted (with excellent dance sequences choreographed by Joy Javits) and is directed by visitor Timothy Douglas, formerly of Actors Theatre. He emphasizes the broad humor of the script and has a quirky sense of timingsometimes this punches up the comedy, sometimes it introduces unwanted drag on the forward velocity. Here he works with a range of actors of differing skill levelsPRC members, MFA students, UNC drama majors and visiting actors chosen from the New York casting call. He elicits good work from most, but in a few cases, the actors’ vocal skills are not sufficiently developed.

A greater difficulty is introduced by double and triple casting. Even PRC stalwart Ray Dooley is not quite up to the task of suspending our disbelief as Sir William Lucas, Mr. Collins and Mr. Gardiner, although much of the fault in the last lies with Jory’s mangled characterization. He’s made Mr. Gardiner ridiculous, which is all wrong: He is supposed to stand in contrast to Mr. Bennet; his weakness here is not salutary. Another unfortunate pairing has Julie Nelson playing both Mrs. Gardiner and Lady Catherine. Again, I think Jory has misunderstood the Gardiners’ roles in Austen’s visionand Nelson brings rather too much of Lady Catherine to her portrayal of Mrs. Gardiner.

Joy Jones, on the other hand, is superb as Caroline Bingley. Her highly sympathetic interpretation of this unsympathetic character is revelatory, even though Jory has left Caroline marooned in the play. The depth and delicacy of Jones’ portrayal in this small role are not equaled by anyone else in this production.

But what, you will have been asking, of Miss Eliza Bennet and Mr. Darcy? Noel Joseph Allain is handsome, butI’m sorry to say it, but there it isconfuses Darcy’s reserve with fussiness, and he never reveals the warmth and dignity that explain Elizabeth’s falling in love with him after so inauspicious a beginning. It is easy to see why he falls for Elizabeththe tiny Kristin Villanueva commands the stage and gives us a marvelous Lizzie, with the full complement of wit and vivacity that has made her more than acceptable to her many admirers for nearly 200 years.