For some people, the promise of spring reveals itself with the first crocuses popping up in the yard. For others, it might be baseball’s spring training and the Grapefruit League season.
But for me, nothing compares to the first productions of the season at the American Shakespeare Center. This hardworking company, versatile and innovative, has always surprised me with its repertory, and this year is no exception.
The ASC has opened 2024 with a truly delightful production of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. As directed by the ensemble itself, the show has all the wit, character, and measured stratagems fans of Austen know and love. Accompanied by period music from the band Spare Parts, the world of Regency England receives a faithful rendering, with a few contemporary theatrical flourishes to keep us on our toes.
The story follows the fortunes of the Bennet sisters, each of whom has her own unique personality, and all of whom—this being Austen—”must” be married off before it’s too late. Their mother, Mrs. Bennet (Sarah Fallon, in an appropriately ditzy turn), is determined to show off her girls to advantage with every new beau who comes to town. Their dad, Mr. Bennet (the calm, sedate Kenn Hopkins Jr.), pipe firmly clenched in teeth, is perfectly happy to let his wife manage these things, which otherwise might get in the way of his reading.
By far the most compelling romance here is between Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, whose on-again, off-again relationship is the heart of the action. Natasia Lucia Reinhardt’s Lizzie is nobody’s fool (even if she occasionally misjudged), and Philip Orazio’s Darcy is every inch the dashing, brooding introvert of her dreams. The chemistry is contagious, and the obstacles strewn in their path, sometimes self-strewn, will keep you engaged right up to the final kiss.
(Well yeah, of course they kiss in the end; this is Austen, get over it.)
The world of Pride and Prejudice is filled with vivid characters, and the ensemble here wastes no time making them nearly unforgettable. Aidan O’Reilly, when he’s not regaling audiences during pre-show with a gritty rendering of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” leaves you in stitches as Mr. Collins, whose backcountry dialect is so thick you’d need a chainsaw to cut through. Meanwhile, Annabelle Rollison returns to Blackfriars most memorably as Lizzie’s insanely bookish sister Mary, spectacles and all. And Sarah Fallon does a fun about-face, and when not playing Mrs. Bennet is truly terrifying as the elite, untouchable Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
For my money, the greatest fun to be had here is watching Joe Mucciolo’s turns—first as Lizzie’s kid sister Kitty, and then as the horribly snobbish killjoy, Caroline Bingley. Does Mr. Mucciolo sport a beard? Yes. Does it distract from the fun and games? Absolutely not; once you get past the initial surprise (looking as he does, like he came out of a 1960s Mothers of Invention album cover), you’ll find he gives both of these characters the innocence (Kitty’s) and dripping condescension (Caroline’s) required, and with verve. Plus, the dresses show him off to advantage.
Because of the atmosphere at Blackfriars Playhouse, with the lights up at all times, this is the perfect production to introduce friends and family to Austen’s world. If they’re not yet Austen-mad, by the end of the show they will definitely see why she has continued to attract such a devoted following among readers and viewers alike. With the plus that, performed under ASC’s signature “universal lighting,” you can meet Austen’s finely-drawn characters, face to face—and maybe interact with them, even. (I mean, all dropped handkerchiefs must be gallantly retrieved and returned, mustn’t they?)
Pride and Prejudice is a perfect evening out: a merry-go-round of flirtations, intrigues, imperious dowagers, edgy bachelors, ditzes, and know-it-alls, with an ending that is as improbable as it is inevitable. Emma Whipday’s stage adaptation is spot-on, as is the show itself.
Running Time: Two and a half hours including a 15-minute intermission.
Pride and Prejudice plays through June 8, 2024, in repertory with Julius Caesar (through June 8), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (March 14 through June 9) presented by American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For tickets ($34–$71), call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.
Cast and artistic team credits for Pride and Prejudice are online here (scroll down).
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.