By David Patrick Stearns
INQUIRER CULTURE CRITIC
Jane Austen has handily overtaken pretty much everybody among staged romantic comedies, not just because she helped codify the form, but because nobody (still) does it better.
The People’s Light and Theatre Company’s engrossing adaptation of Pride and Prejudice achieves immediacy for 21st-century audiences through meticulous attention to period manners. Our distance from Regency England allows a more objective comparison to our own cold, calculating mating dances. For all their exterior formality, Austen’s characters — who pursue the spouse of their dreams with endless complications along the way — verbalize power dynamics with a frankness that Sex and the City denizens would only discuss guiltily among themselves.
The much-traveled Joseph Hanreddy/J.R. Sullivan adaptation takes extremely well to the stage; the plot’s inciting incident announces itself in the opening seconds, and social conventions are spelled out with eloquent clarity. It also risks theatrical digression with so many new characters added late in the game.
However, director Samantha Bellomo emphasized the element of social dance as a central plot-connecting leitmotif — enabled partly by rearrangement of the theater’s rearranged performing space: a center runway stage and raked seats on each side. Most seats allow intimate proximity to the actors, so one more readily enters their world of dance, whose geometric formality allows relationships to develop through peripheral glances. Little in the way of ornate scenery detracts from the character dynamics; the period costumes telegraph to the audience what levels of repression a character is experiencing.
The acting is often pitch perfect. The plot’s five sisters, pushed by their mother to marry above their station, are well differentiated, though Julianna Zinkel (Elizabeth) projects such intelligent charisma that her sisters seem unduly less interesting in comparison — even Jessica Bedford, who cuts a suitably beautiful profile as Jane. Marc LeVasseur shows the imperious Mr. Darcy not just as a man with hidden humanity but as one whose emotions toward Elizabeth force him to peel away social conventions of his time.
As the shallow Mrs. Bennet, Marcia Saunders is delightfully obsessive, though she wore thin in Act II. Tom Teti is the suitable voice of reason as Mr. Bennet: The fact that he observes more than anything else links him with modern audiences that might find all of this dowry business a bit arcane.
The production sometimes veered toward modern-day shriekiness, though with thoughtful undercurrents. When the youngest sister, Lydia, is the first to marry, Emiley Kiser’s hysterical portrayal convinced you how easily her character’s impetuosity could lead to tyrannical grandiosity. But she also came off like a Ritalin addict.
Through March 30 at People's Light and Theatre. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org