In playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the droll, headstrong protagonist, Lizzy Bennett, tells her sisters that love is a game. So it makes sense that WaterTower's production of the play, onstage through Nov. 5, opens with a basketball game. Actors sit on the benches, waiting to be called back into play.
The frenetic opening jumps right into the chaotic Bennett household, where Mrs. Bennett is doggedly getting her daughters ready for a neighborhood ball in hopes they'll snag husbands.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennett are played, respectively, by Bob Hess — who doubles fabulously as the spinster friend of the family, Charlotte — and Wendy Welch. The sisters are Jane (Kate Paulsen), Lizzy (earnest, ball-busting Jenny Ledel), Lydia (Steph Garrett) and odd, surly, possibly consumptive Mary (Justin Duncan, also playing Mr. Bingley, the object of Jane’s affection).
Lizzy, ever dismissive of the idea of marriage, attends the party grudgingly. There, she meets the haughty, grumpy Mr. Darcy, (John Michael-Marrs), who declares the party to be filled with desperate country women and decidedly beneath him. Lizzy writes him off, rightly so, as arrogant.
In college, I loudly bragged that I was bored by Jane Austen. A vocal standout in a small, private university where Austen was queen, I preferred the gritty tragedy of Hemingway and the sprawling masculinity of Melville.
As I get older — and as I raise headstrong little girls of my own — I have found out exactly where I was wrong.
Austen was sly, and the tragedy is there. She wants you to listen for it. Hamill’s witty, busy adaptation, directed by WaterTower artistic director Joanie Schultz, with set design by Chelsea Warren, punches you in the gut right when you think the screaming has reached a fever pitch. And there is plenty of screaming.
A house full of girls is loud. Very loud. Hamill plays up the chaos of prom night in a house with four sisters; almost every character's entrance is announced by a shriek. And while it feels overwhelming, this is a picture of a family. Yes, the story is about presumptions, but it’s also about a group of people fiercely dedicated to each other.
The end of Act 1 comes with the news that Mr. Bingley has left town. Mrs. Bennett shreds the letter as Jane and Lizzy hold each other, making sense of the announcement. The audience is hit with the emotional weight of being a mother and wanting the assurances that your children will be OK and taken care of after you're gone.
This is Austen’s mastery, and Hamill’s in turn for her whip-smart adaptation. A simple love story is more than just a love story. It encompasses all the pressures that have befallen women since time began. To have any sort of a life, these women must marry. And to keep their home in the family? Lizzy has to marry uber-creepy Mr. Collins. She refuses.
As Collins — played by Brandon Potter, who takes on three characters, all perfectly nuanced — chases Lizzy around the parlor begging for her acceptance, the audience goes wild. As a man continues to pressure a woman into saying yes, physically asserting himself over her, we all laugh. It’s not funny, really. Yet we laugh. We laugh because it’s familiar, and as Lizzy tells us early on, if we don’t, we might cry.
It’s a tightly assembled cast that requires near-constant communication, and the actors pull it off well. Steph Garrett steals the show as the bratty, oops-she’s-drunk-at-the-ball-again little sister and brings the house down as the pompous, deep-voiced Lady Catherine De Bourgh, Darcy’s wealthy aunt. Garrett is likely one of the finest physical actors in Dallas, and she’s utterly hilarious in both of her roles.
And just when it’s getting a little too wacky, the show stops your heart once again. Baby sis has run off with the scoundrel Mr. Wickham (Potter). As Lizzy declares, in tears, it’s her fault for calling love a game. Mr. Bennett blames himself, the absent father, and their overzealous mom. When Lydia returns, the gravity of what she’s done hits the family. She has to go and be married to the older man. It’s a tearful, somber goodbye.
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There’s so much happening in this play. It may take audiences unfamiliar with Austen's work a minute to figure it out. But it all falls together. Hamill, who has found her niche adapting classic literature into theater, is very good at distilling the themes into bold, modern, identifiable strokes that feel strikingly relevant. Schultz directs her writing well, injecting Hamill’s playfulness into the action.
Most endearing of all was my guest for the evening, my 9-year-old daughter. She was enraptured from the beginning, laughed at the appropriate moments — missing the innuendos, thankfully — and absolutely enchanted to the end. In the car on our way home, far past her usual bedtime, she told me, “I think I just had the time of my life.”
Take heart, fellow parents terrified of technology's influence on their kids: There’s still a place for Jane Austen in our changing world. Kate Hamill makes it easy for this new generation of tiny, fierce, headstrong Lizzys to understand.
Pride and Prejudice, through Nov. 5, WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, $35, watertowertheatre.org.