If you were to arrive at Center Stage prejudiced with the view that a beloved Jane Austen novel could not possibly be transformed satisfactorily into a vehicle for the stage, you just might have to swallow your pride and admit the folly of your supposition.
Thanks to an appealing cast, fluid direction and stylish production values, the world premiere of "Pride and Prejudice," adapted by Christopher Baker, turns out to be a thorough charmer.
Devoted Austen-ites may well quibble with this or that — missing characters or incidents, adjustments in language or emphasis. But, speaking as one who managed to resist the author's spell (I'm too busy reading Proust, of course), I think it safe to say that Baker has done a commendable job repackaging this tale of marriage and manners in the late-18th-century English countryside.
While respectful of Austen, he does not aim for mere imitation or by-the-numbers re-creation; the dialogue sounds authentic and natural.
This is, above all, an entertaining work of theater. It gets a little unwieldy, requiring an almost dizzying number of scene changes, each requiring some furniture-switching. But the play holds up quite sturdily, with a clear arc that leads to an effective tightening of tension to close Act 1 and a neat little journey toward the final curtain.
Most impressive, perhaps, is how Baker does all of this without making it feel forced. Even though we know right from the get-go that ever-so-independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Abbruzzese) and haughty Mr. Darcy (A.J. Shively) will eventually overcome their initial dislike for each other, their journey remains intriguing, each bump in the road delivering sufficient jolt, with the final destination delivering a true emotional payoff.
Note, too, the abundant humor. This "Pride and Prejudice" gets a good deal of amusing mileage from Austen's deft targeting of stuffiness, hypocrisy and social machinations — traits all too prevalent in our day, too, as you might have noticed.
The production's director, Hana S. Sharif, keeps the action moving smoothly and at a brisk clip, taking advantage of every nook in Scott Bradley's elegant, two-tiered set, which is lit with considerable nuance by Colin D. Young.
All of the stagecraft would matter little were it not for the polished work of the 21-member ensemble, finely costumed by Ilona Somogyi.
Abbruzzese quickly reveals Elizabeth's distinctive mix of brains and heart — her sense and sensibility, if you will — that makes her stand out in a world of dance parties and pleasantries about the weather. Each shift in attitudes toward Darcy is made palatable by the beguiling actress, who adds more and more affecting layers to Elizabeth with each scene.