Literary adaptations for stage or film inevitably lose some of the author’s frame of mind, the challenge resting in how to retain a measure of the irony, interior commentary and the dialogue that pierces like a shiv beneath a cloak of manners.
British playwright Simon Reade does better than most with his take on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which opened Friday in Joe Dowling’s briskly paced and energetic production at the Guthrie. Reade allows room for Austen’s introspective characters to ruminate, regret and wonder. Too, he keeps our eyes persistently on the unfolding dance between Elizabeth Bennet and her mysterious suitor, Mr. Darcy.
Those elements, though, do not come together effortlessly in Dowling’s staging. Conversations often seem more dueling orations, and performances stretch to enormous proportions. Alexander Dodge’s polished portico and manicured topiary — perfectly economical to serve all scenes — elides the class distinctions so essential to Austen’s novel. That task is handled more articulately in Mathew LeFebvre’s well-observed costume design and Joe Chvala’s elegantly staged dances.
Austen’s novel revolves around the modestly appointed Bennet family. With five daughters and the threat of losing their home once father dies, these folks are fixed in the patriarchal straits of Regency England. Mrs. Bennet, a flustered and bellowing wreck of emotions in Suzanne Warmanen’s performance, is determined to get her girls married. Peter Thomson’s Mr. Bennet guards his feelings with dry wit and authority — suffering gamely his wife’s perorations.
Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s aware and intelligent heroine, takes on a modern sensibility in Ashley Rose Montondo’s portrayal — more a creature of emotion than intellect. Her feistiness recalls another Eliza — the cockney Doolittle — with an occasional bruising impudence.
And what of her arrogant and repressed paramour, Mr. Darcy? Many theatergoers will take in this show just to see Vincent Kartheiser, the excellent TV actor from “Mad Men,” put his stamp on the role. Kartheiser makes his presence most evident with hauteur and conceit — characteristics that make him easily definable as mere mortal rather than Austen’s enigmatic, brooding figure of privilege and assumed arrogance. He doesn’t feel completely comfortable in Darcy’s cloak of mystery, although Kartheiser does loosen as Darcy warms to Elizabeth with a nice humor and natural charm.
‘Tis a bit frustrating that Kartheiser is such a good soldier in deferring to Montondo’s Elizabeth — whose story this is. If he hadn’t, of course, critics would have said Kartheiser is smothering the lead character. But shucks, some of us came to see Vinny Kartheiser, Live!
Reade’s script brings out the many crisp characters in Austen’s story, illustrated in high relief (sometimes too high?) in the Guthrie’s production. Sally Wingert, in a ridiculously cadaverous gown, glowers with spot-on witchy menace as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Hugh Kennedy brings just the right touch of light joie de vivre to the aristocratic Mr. Bingley.
Anna Sundberg is a bit too mannered as Caroline Bingley, a role that requires icy subtlety. And as the hapless clergyman, Mr. Collins, Kris L. Nelson has fashioned a sweaty and desperate fellow who feels more buffoon than pompous twit.
It was nice to see the Guthrie full Friday — which too often has not been the case this season. This is the 200th anniversary of “Pride and Prejudice” being published, and Dowling’s production caps the Guthrie’s 50th-anniversary year. Then there is the chance to see Kartheiser. Even if all the pieces have not quite jelled, the event lures us from the warm breezes of summer.