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The Rousuck Review: "Pride And Prejudice"

Richard Anderson

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has spawned a zombie novel, a murder mystery,and even a Bollywood movie. Now Center Stage has mounted a brand new stage version. Will our own Jane Austen fan, Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, take pride in this latest adaptation?

Just when you thought you’d seen every possible permutation of  Pride and Prejudice, along comes “A Guinea Pig Pride & Prejudice.” I’m not kidding. Last week a British-based publisher released a rodent version of Jane Austen’s most famous novel.

Baltimore Austen fans, rest easy. Jane Austen’s 1813 novel is receiving a far more faithful theatrical adaptation at Center Stage. And, under Hana S. Sharif’s perceptive direction, Austen’s keen psychological insights about human behavior shine.

The biggest departure in Christopher Baker’s world premiere adaptation is that it reduces the number of sisters in the novel’s Bennet family from five to four. It’s a change that doesn’t significantly alter Austen’s story.

The focus remains on Elizabeth Bennet – the second oldest of these four unmarried sisters. As played by Kate Abbruzzese, Elizabeth is bright, opinionated, impetuous and endearing.

A word about the financial status of women in Jane Austen’s England: A good marriage was one of the few guarantees of security at a time when property was passed down almost exclusively to male heirs.

Pride and Prejudice, you see, isn’t merely a romance novel, it’s a socio-political commentary. Because the Bennet sisters have no brothers, their situation is potentially dire. When their father dies, their home will go to a distant male cousin -- a stuffy clergyman, played by Chris Bolan as a dense, pompous simp.

When this dull clergyman proposes marriage to Elizabeth, her practical response would be to accept. Instead, she holds out for a man who will be her equal.

That man, as Austen aficionados know, is rich, handsome Mr. Darcy. But Elizabeth is prejudiced against prideful Darcy from the start. And no wonder. A. J. Shively’s scowling Darcy is so rude and full of himself, he’s closed off his own heart.

There’s a spark in their sparring, however, and that leaves no doubt that these two are more alike than they realize – made for each other, in fact.

Center Stage’s large cast features many strong supporting performances, chief among them -- Anthony Newfield as Elizabeth’s disengaged father and Erin Neufer as her dear older sister, Jane. Patricia Hodges is a particular standout, whether playing the Bennets’ much-put-upon maid or Darcy’s snooty aunt. This dragon lady is convinced she knows – and excels at – well, everything.

The production is brimming with clever design elements. Designer Scott Bradley has decorated his two-level set with fancy molding, and he includes a balcony and scrims that prove handy for eavesdropping. Thanks largely to designer Alex Koch’s projections, the set transitions easily from the Bennets’ comfortable house to Darcy’s stately mansion.

A sound design collective called Broken Chord has composed an engaging musical score that has one foot in the turn-of-the-19th century and the other in the 21st . That’s an excellent example of what Center Stage’s “Pride and Prejudice” does best: It approaches Austen’s 200-year-old story with a modern sensibility.

At the risk of a minor spoiler alert, the play, like the novel, ends happily. But it’s not all hearts and flowers. You enter the theater to see a charming love story – and you do. But you leave reminded of the gender inequalities that still plague us today.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.