Kate Abbruzzese as Elizabeth and A.J. Shively as Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" at Center Stage.
Kate Abbruzzese as Elizabeth and A.J. Shively as Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" at Center Stage. (Richard Anderson)

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.

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Shively does persuasive work, his eyes constantly darting in search of a social equal. He is especially effective when he gets a chance to suggest there's something deeper, warmer about Darcy.

Anthony Newfield and Mary Jo Mecca are perfect as the eligible-daughter-heavy Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. With her expert timing and expressive flair, Mecca nearly steals the whole show. But she gets competition in that department from Chris Bolan, who generates terrific color as the pretentious clergyman, Mr. Collins. It's worth catching the production just to hear the way Bolan says, many times, "my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh" — a character played with a deliciously regal air by Patricia Hodges.

Ali Rose Dachis (Lydia Bennet) and Kelly McCrann (Charlotte Lucas) are among other standouts. The cast handles the several dancing scenes nimbly. Paloma McGregor's choreography pays homage to the style of Austen's time, while giving a nod to the present, which is what the imaginative musical score by Broken Chord does as well.

There is considerable use of projections, which works well when providing atmospheric touches. Periodic, close-up film footage of the actors, looking terribly earnest and BBC-TV-ish, is more intrusive. In terms of flow and propulsion, the staging is cinematic enough as it is.

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