Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Faulkner: "Pride and Prejudice"

The 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen's celebrated novel Pride and Prejudice is not going unnoticed. Jason Clark South is directing John Jory's stage adaptation at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre with a cast of fifteen actors (some playing multiple roles) on Matt Dickson's flexible set.

Pride and Prejudice has had several stage and film incarnations, and remains a staple on High School and University reading lists, so there are few surprises in tracing the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett [Mara Woddail] and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy [Chase McMichen] to its romantically satisfying conclusion. It is clear from the onset that their conflicting personalities render them made for each other; it is just a matter of time that will set things aright.

These two are the principal roles in the divergent social classes that clash ever-so-politely on the surface while the undercurrent of a rigid English class system -- its snobbery and aloofness at odds with an emerging middle class's claims of equality -- dominates the action.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet [Brandtley McDonald and Rebekah Goldman] and their five unmarried daughters live a relatively simple country life at Longbourn, though when he dies all his estate will pass on to the nearest male relative, Mr. Collins [Allen Young], a clergyman whose haughty patroness Lady Catherine de Borgh (sic) [Abby Roberts] he panders to repeatedly. -- Since at that time women could not inherit, it is to everyone's benefit to find them suitable (i. e. "rich") husbands.

Obsessed with the proposition that "a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in need of a wife", Mrs. Bennet, lacking in most social graces, determines to find suitable husbands for her offspring, starting with the eldest, Jane [Jesse Alston], the avowed prettiest of them all, and certainly the kindest.

When young, single, handsome, and wealthy Charles Bingley [Blake Williams] takes up temporary residence in nearby Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet sets things in action at a ball there. Bingley and Jane are instantly attracted to one another; Elizabeth meets the fabulously wealthy Darcy, but his coldness towards her and his blunt judgments of others makes things awkward; and because these men are from the upper class, others in their company try to dissuade and later sabotage any attachments with the Bennet sisters.

When Mr. Collins is rejected by both Jane and Elizabeth, he marries their friend Charlotte [Brittany Johnston] instead -- a marriage of convenience for both, not of love -- the consequence of which might leave the Bennet family destitute when Mr. Bennet dies. -- And, flighty Lydia Bennet [Emily Woodring] runs away with the superficially pleasant Lt. George Wickham [Geoffrey Morris is suitably deceptive in the role]. As an unmarried couple, they would bring shame on the Bennets, virtually cutting them off from any possibility of social advancement; but when Darcy intervenes on the family's behalf, Elizabeth's opinion of him changes.

It takes hundreds of pages in the novel, but two-and-a-half hours on stage to unravel the plot twists and set them right; so much of the plot is here narrated by a number of characters -- not dramatically interesting, but an effective device to hone the action to its key elements.

In the Faulkner production, most of the characters are drawn with such bold strokes that they do little more than serve the plot; and while the student actors target key attitudes or personality traits, they are given few chances to create multi-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, imprecise dialects, generic music choices, and lengthy scene changes break the flow of Mr. Jory's script.

There are some exceptions, however. Mr. Young's obsequious portrayal of Mr. Collins is consistent and confident, and completely unaware that others ridicule him: good work here. As Lady Catherine, Ms. Roberts commands the stage with her entitlements of social rank intact. Ms. Alston's Jane possesses an admirable kindness towards others, emerging as a sympathetic figure who deserves the good fortune of marrying the likewise kindly Mr. Bingley.

Since the arc of Mr. Jory's script focuses so much on Elizabeth and Darcy, they are the only characters whose relationship is developed in any detail. Ms. Woddail and Mr. McMichen allow their characters to subtly shift their opinions in a series of brief encounters that at first have them confused, later sparring partners, and eventually realizing each other's worth. Everything has been building to the marriage proposal that she accepts in a sweet and convincing romantic scene.

They have faced and triumphed over the pride and prejudices that had kept them back from a meaningful relationship and a happy life. Lessons for us all.