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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Profound Pairing

Theater Review

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In Pride andPrejudice's famous opening sentence, Jane Austen supplies the major motif for the wry, delightful maneuvering of the Bennet sisters in this justifiably popular novel of conflicting manners and morals. Her book illustrates the social mores of 18th-century England, where courtesy and reticence are the most inhibiting factors in relationships between men and women. Elizabeth Bennet will not play these games, calling to task the prideful arrogance of Mr. Darcy, whom she will eventually grow to love. But is he the one with pride and she prejudiced? Or is she so full of pride that she spurns him for openly stating that he has overcome his prejudice against her social inferiority? None of this matters in this fine, delicately balanced stage adaptation of a too-familiar work by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. We wait for love to prevail.

However, loyalty to Austen's narrative and classic prose presents a few problems, not the least of which is the difficulty in hearing the dialogue in a dense, fast-moving production that condenses most of the novel and forces the characters to speak too rapidly, not always savoring the dialogue. Long stretches of narrative description are supposedly clarified by having sidebar vignettes performed to illustrate what the characters are talking about, but this does not always function smoothly and occasionally seems distractive. Rapid set changes keep things moving. All this is to the good, and the appreciative audience felt that the spirit of Austen's gentle satire was well served.

The acting is variable. Lee Stark as Elizabeth Bennet is charming enough and often winning, but she lacks the leading-lady edge to give sufficient profile to her role. Grant Goodman as Mr. Darcy is tall and handsome with a fine baritone voice, but sometimes lacks the sophistication that this key role requires.

The more seasoned cast members shine, however. Laura Gordon as the nerve-ridden Mrs. Bennet, anxious to marry off her brood to almost anyone, is terrifically humorous, as is as her Job-like husband played by Jonathan Gillard Daly. But it is Brian Vaughn as the sanctimonious, sycophant clergyman, Mr. Collins, who steals every scene with his hilarious pronouncements of unconscious hypocritical piety-one of Austen's most telling creations. Vaughn knows how to move across a stage, savoring every word of Austen's biting wit.

As the unscrupulous Mr. Wickham and Kitty Bennet, his runaway wife, Jason Bradley and Eva Balistrieri make an unlikely pair. This relationship will not last, serving as a thematic contrast to the more profound pairing of Elizabeth and Darcy, symbolizing once again a recurrent theme in all of Jane Austen's work: that love succeeds best between people of good character-an interesting comparison with our own less scrupled times.

The Milwaukee Rep's production ofPride and Prejudice runs through March 29.