Jessica Murray, director, would not call the theatre department’s spring play “accessible.” It is for a very specific audience: the strong-willed, culture-savvy students who make up our school’s honors and AP classes. Indeed, that audience will not be disappointed by “Pride and Prejudice: First Impressions,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic romantic novel about an “obstinate, headstrong girl” and the seemingly cold-hearted man who tries to be her suitor.
The story takes place in 19th century England, where the Bennett family — a high-strung mother (Katherine Molnar, senior), a snarky father (Riley Olson, junior) and their five daughters, Jane (Dinah Sigmund, junior), Elizabeth (Melissa Cozzi, senior), Mary (Morgan Middleton, freshman), Katherine (Kokanee Ellingson, freshman) and Lydia (Taya Arnone, senior) — are hoping to find husbands. A number of gentlemen make their acquaintances: the awkward clergyman Mr. Collins (Evan Shely, freshman), the fabulously wealthy Mr. Bingley (Kyle Fulton, freshman), the devilishly charming Mr. Wickham (James Topping, junior) and the distant, at-first pompous Mr. Darcy (Tristan Avery, junior). In a series of conversations, we learn about Darcy’s background, relationship with Wickham, and the circumstances which lead Elizabeth to go from hating him to adoring him.
The play is very dialogue-driven; physical humor is all but absent. However, Austen’s dialogue, as interpreted by playwright Connor Kerns, is exquisitely written, dripping with wordplay and snarkiness, and the actors are stellar at conveying the sentiments. When the mood is tongue-in-cheek, their tongues are all in the right place. When the mood is sweet or serious, it is delivered authentically and the audience can truly feel it. It is a beautiful sort of romantic comedy, with sincerely delivered romance, brilliantly-timed comedy and a message about love and class that will ring true with those who can keep up with the pace of the story. Alas, my only complaint about the writing is that the story is so fast-paced and so full of characters and historical context to keep track of, that occasionally, I was slightly lost. Not lost enough that the beauty of the play and the cleverness of the dialogue were lost as well; the actors’ spot-on interpretation of the words fills the gap extremely well. Still, viewers should be prepared for one roller coaster of a romantic drama to keep up with.
The play is produced as theatre-in-the-round: all the seats in the Black Box are arranged around the stage to give a circular view of the action (the last time our theatre department used a similar technique was in 2009 for “Waiting for Godot”). This makes the play more intimate and close and personal, a delightful touch for the audience. Sometimes, depending on your perspective, it may be somewhat difficult to see who is speaking, but the closeness allows the viewer to see various subtleties. For example, in Act I, Darcy can be seen reading, if you sit close enough to his desk, John Locke’s “Essay on Human Understanding.”
I especially applaud the acting skills of Jennie Warmack, senior. The night I attended the show, Warmack played her usual role as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s powerful aunt who refuses to let the middle-class Elizabeth fall into a relationship with her nephew. She also played Mrs. Bennett. Molnar was sick that evening, so Warmack took her place. It was absolutely flawless how she was able to take on both roles and make them not even remotely similar to each other. I regret that I could not have seen Molnar’s interpretation of the role, but Warmack was delightful in both. It added a funny, ironic twist when de Bourgh was criticizing, to Elizabeth’s face, how the Bennetts were raised.
This play was an absolute delight, but Murray is correct when she says it is not a play for everyone. It is for people who can pay close attention to dialogue and understand the language of the period so that the true fun and romance of the play can sink in. The actors and crew of this play do a spectacular job of catering to that audience. And who knows? If you’re outside of that audience, perhaps seeing this play would be a fun challenge for you, just as it was a challenge for the people involved in this production. Thankfully, they were well up to the task.
“Pride and Prejudice: First Impressions” will be performed in the Black Box Theatre on March 14 at 7 p.m. and March 16 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for adults.