Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Pride and Prejudice

Unspoken passion simmers behind courtly manners in this gem of pop culture from a bygone era

Elizabeth (Caitlin McWethy) and Mr. Darcy (Michael Ryan Neely). <<photo by Corey Sentz>>

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
    So says Jane Austen in the original chic lit, Pride and Prejudice, which opens The Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s third season at the Bowie Playhouse. Questing to bring local audiences not only works by the Bard but also other time-tested classics, the company takes us to Britain’s Regency. Jon Jory’s 2005 stage adaptation promises “smart dialogue that navigates the shoals of class distinction, the subjugate roles of women in a patriarchal society and the perils of overweening pride.”
    This educational troupe of professionals and young adult amateurs has staged another beautiful triumph. Though not as magical as last fall’s Cymbeline, it delivers a swoon-worthy story in style with minimal props or special effects, save for extravagant costumes worthy of Napoleon and Josephine. The non-credited set is elegant and simple: three towering French doors evoking the interior and exterior of an English country estate replete with period antiques and escapist fantasies.
    Fantasy is the daily bread of the Bennet family. Mrs. Bennet (Carol Randolph) is a flibbertigibbet of a mother of five eligible daughters. The two youngest — Kitty (Liz Kinder), the vacuous one, and Lydia (Solveig Moe), the petulant one — exemplify the worst of puerile husband-hunters. Mary the bookworm  (Stephanie Ramsey) is blind to life. Fortunately, Jane (Alyssa Bouma), the sweet and pretty one, and Elizabeth (Caitlin McWethy), the critical wit, make up for their sisters’ shortcomings. Mr. Bennet (Jim Reiter) is a complaisant treasure of a father.
     Like their kindred spirits of Downton Abbey a century later, the Bennets are destined to lose their estate to their father’s closest male relative. Mr. Collins (Zach Brewster-Geisz) is a clownish clergyman in pursuit of an economical wife. As Jane is nearly engaged to the wealthy and charming Mr. Bingley (Grayson Owen), Elizabeth is left to fend off Collins’ advances amid the attentions of more distracting suitors. Among them are the cad George Wickham (Rob Mobley) and the aristocratic Mr. Darcy (Michael Ryan Neely), whose reticence lends him a priggishness Elizabeth cannot abide.
    She and Darcy are, of course, destined to marry. But not until their initial dislike and gradual warming cause him to offend, then save, the family’s honor amidst concerted attacks on the Bennet name from the poisonous Miss Bingley (Lauren Turchin) and Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Esther Schwarzbauer), Darcy’s aunt who intends him to marry her daughter.
    Because the script whittles a cast of 26 down to 14, this already convoluted soap opera can be confusing. Familiar faces morph into new personas. To wit, Owen doubles as both Jane’s paramour and one of Elizabeth’s lesser suitors, Col. Fitzwilliam. Ramsey doubles as Elizabeth’s sister Mary and her best friend Charlotte, who abruptly marries Collins. Kinder doubles as sister to both Elizabeth and Darcy. Only Joshua Boulden, doubling as both Charlotte’s little-seen father and the Bennets’ Uncle Gardiner, and Turchin, doubling as condescending Miss Bingley and loving Aunt Gardiner, succeed in conveying different personas. She is outstanding in her transformation.
    Despite stellar performances from McWethy, Neely and Owen, Austen’s flowery and stilted language can be boring. Thus ladies seem to enjoy this show more than gents. Indeed, several men in the audience took a cue from Reiter’s comical napping scene when Brewster-Geisz was at his most comically tedious. Austen’s style is an acquired taste, even in this pithy two-and-a-half hour stage adaptation.
    Live actors help bring to life the unspoken passion simmering behind courtly manners. Other contrivances that liven up the action include dancing and Peter Ekstrom’s soundtrack, which infuses traditional string quartets and harpsichord tunes with modern dissonances that echo Elizabeth’s stinging wit. The characters sometimes speak the novel’s most famous lines in unison, rather like a Greek chorus whose emphatic pronouncements resonate beyond the polite din of conversation.
    I recommend this show for its careful attention to period detail. In an era of renewed Austen-mania, it’s a gem of pop culture from a bygone era.

Director and choreographer: Sally Boyett-D’Angelo. Costumes: Maggie Cason. Lights: Garrett Hyde. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs. With Jim Cason, Helen Gorman, Rebecca Jonas, Caleb Pimpo, Michael Pimpo and Miranda Savage.
Playing thru Apr. 27, Th-Sa 8pm; Sa 2pm at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Dr., Bowie. $20 with discounts; rsvp: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.