Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s outstanding staging of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice embraces its material with a warmth and fondness that melts the cold brittleness of its characters. The Bennet sisters, Mr. Darcy and the gang rise easily from Austen’s pages and absolutely glow in the context that a committee of directors (company co-founders Jason and Lauren Morgan, with Chelsea Duncan) creates for them.
Most people who would have any desire to see this show are extremely familiar with its plot (is there any Austen fan who has read her novels only once?). But if you don’t know the story, it is enough to understand that the five Bennet sisters must be married off, both because of their advanced years (some of them are probably creeping into their 20s) and to save the family lands and fortune.
There are plenty of eligible bachelors floating around but, this being a 19th-century British novel, no one is capable of expressing their emotions. The potential couples instead occupy their time by grasping at any rumors that come by and acting on them. This leads to all sorts of hurt feelings, false accusations and plenty of seriously delayed gratification. But in the end, most of the useless baggage at the Bennet household (because that is indeed how the girls are regarded) is hooked up with a husband whom they have not been bold enough to address by first name. If this story and its characters were any more quintessentially British, we probably would have been forced to endure a high tea at intermission.
Praise can be passed around pretty much across the board for this production, but the kudos have to start with the directing team. Utilizing a stage and seating configuration not previously seen with this company, they make excellent use of the space and add one cleaver touch after another to Jon Jory’s excellent adaptation of Austen’s novel. There is the scene, for example, where the primary couple, Elizabeth Bennet (Samantha Chancellor) and Mr. Darcy (Michael Rudd), are engaged in some early romantic sparring. Their dialogue is exchanged as they do an elaborate, courtly dance that beautifully mirrors their extremely formal, careful and overly proper approach to all things — even love.
The show also has a superior sense of humor, especially in its first act. Most of the thanks for that goes to Austen, but the rest could be equally divided among the directors and Jory.
The directors earn an additional pat on the back for putting together one of the most effective and balanced casts this company has ever assembled. Almost all the players handle their characters and accents extremely well.
Leading the way are Chancellor, who is absolutely wonderful as the most cerebral of the Bennett girls, and Rudd, who is appropriately aloof and brooding while projecting an aura that calls to mind a young Richard Burton. Independently, they are every bit as interesting as Austen would have wanted them to be. And together, they have electrifying chemistry that sends a charge through the whole production.
There is hardly a weak performance in the large cast, and there are a few near-cameos that really standout.
Shane Hurst is absolutely perfect as the tiresome Mr. Collins. It is tricky to play a character who is both insufferable and funny. A lot of actors only get it half right. But Hurst’s take on the self-absorbed parson allows us to enjoy him while also desperately wanting him to go away.
Cindy Matthews is a force of nature as Lady Catherine De Bourgh. She has proven herself to be a fine actress in other SSG productions, and she seems to especially relish playing a domineering woman like De Bourgh.
Finally, Dana Cassling and Mara Frumkin turn in fine performances as Lydia and Kitty, the youngest and silliest of the Bennet sisters. They are as delightful as they are ridiculous.
The show does not have much of a set, but Lauren Morgan’s fabulous costumes convey the period beautifully. Somebody deserves credit for making sure the actresses’s hairdos matched their dresses so well.