Despite her early 19th century origins, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet has always seemed a most modern heroine. The popular and accessible character becomes even more so in Brittni Barger’s controlled and compelling portrayal of the young woman in the new Sacramento Theatre Company season-opening production of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
Barger’s Elizabeth displays a natural intelligence and fierce personal standards that form the handsome production’s heart and soul. As the central figure in the classic novel, Elizabeth finds ways to speak her mind, stand her ground when necessary, and reject marital compromises that might have seduced a less confident character. That Elizabeth eventually comes away with the ultimate prize (a rich, handsome, adoring husband) created an imprint for the cottage industry of romance fiction that followed in Austen’s wake.
Director Michael Stevenson’s satisfying production has a smooth, fluid pace that capitalizes on Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s lean stage adaptation of the novel. The quickly moving spectacle emphasizes the politely antagonistic romance between Elizabeth and the well-heeled, highly eligible and extremely uptight Mr. Darcy (Ryan Snyder) and how it’s encumbered by the social strictures of the times and the characters’ own personal conflicts.
Snyder, a young actor with presence, composure, and versatility, represents something much harder to find in theater than in film — the age-appropriate leading man. Snyder’s Darcy remains intentionally dour and aloof through much of the play, yet a dash more of personality early on would greatly aid his eventual love-inspired transformation. Elizabeth’s brave rejection of his sudden Act 1 proposal feels entirely earned, as much for his backhanded approach to her outspoken intelligence and charm as his own lack of demonstrably attractive qualities outside of his legendary estate and fortune.
The seemingly mismatched lovers’ attraction bridges the class and social divides that separate them. Their relationship – and the similar, parallel relationships in the story – convey Austen’s dim view of the great limitations on women of her times. The only real hope for Elizabeth and her four sisters to have a comfortable life is if they can marry well or even marry at all. The Bennets are gentility but basically without money. They have social standing and little else. Their modest estate and income can be passed down only to a male heir. In their case it would be the sisters’ cousin, the awkward clergyman Mr. Collins (a deviously funny John Lamb).
The elder Bennets – Matt K. Miller’s sly, sage father and Jamie Jones hysterically over the top as the scene-stealing mother – are equally aware of their family’s precarious situation. While Mrs. Bennet frantically throws the girls, particularly the eldest Jane (Rebecca Scott), at each eligible gentleman in her sight, the father displays a more circumspect nature concerning the couplings.
Throwing the house into a tizzy is the new neighbor, the charming and rich Mr. Bingley (the genial Matt Surges), who begins to socialize with the Bennets, along with his aloof sister Caroline (the carefully-arch Kristine David) and their friend Mr. Darcy.
STC makes a particular point of putting students from its Young Professionals Conservatory on stage with professional actors, stating that it wants to be “a leader in integrating professional theatre with theatre arts education.” While the exposure is undoubtedly valuable to the relatively inexperienced students, the performances can be uneven, especially when contrasted against the seasoned professionals sharing the stage. Here, several members of YPC alternate in the roles of the high-spirited younger Bennet sisters who have marital designs of their own.
Shannon Mahoney created the elegant and essential choreography, with sets and costumes by Anna Mantz and Jessica Minnihan. While Snyder’s Darcy ice sculpture doesn’t quite melt next to Barger’s simmering Elizabeth, he does thaw enough for a satisfying resolution to their closeted romance.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Stars: * * *