Rarely does a literary classic transfer from page to stage as eloquently as Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" does in the current production by the Annapolis Shakespeare Company at Bowie Playhouse.
Everything works beautifully, beginning with Jon Jory's engaging stage adaptation, which is faithful to Austen's prose and yet holds its relevance to contemporary audiences.
Sally Boyett-D'Angelo's smart direction of the dream cast she has assembled creates exciting theater, where every actor fully delivers.
Boyett-D'Angelo's simple staging allows actors to become familiar characters who establish an easy rapport with us. The simplicity is deceptive, though, actually requiring concentrated effort, as observed at a recent rehearsal of the 19th-century ballroom scene. The smooth execution of intricate dance steps required repeated practice before attaining natural elegance.
The minimalist set includes three doors, and both outdoor and indoor scenes are created as actors move their own chairs in and out for smooth, speedy scene shifts. The director choreographs lively scenes where couples dance at the center while simultaneous conversations are conducted, shifting from either side of the stage. Choreographed lighting shifts with perfection to focus attention on speakers.
The director's skills include expert pacing to move the plot along as actors' emotions run from romantic to comic. As in Austen's 1813 novel, the major focus is on the developing romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, starting when Elizabeth responds with prejudice toward Darcy's pride in his superior status. The birth of their rocky romance gives the novel its title.
Boyett-D'Angelo illuminates their developing passion through the couple's series of lingering, soulful gazes in pauses that signal budding passion, while they confront and sometimes construct impediments along the way. Their romance is filled with hurdles to be surmounted before they finally realize that they are indeed an ideal match.
The production is enlivened by instances of biting wit in the barbed comments of the arrogant privileged class, along with the ridiculous pandering of such characters as the clergyman Collins. In this production, Collins is played deliciously by Zach Brewster-Geisz, who makes his character much more humorous than odious.
Shared family humor is central. The master of the house, Mr. Bennet, delights in subtly ridiculing his matchmaking wife. Here, veteran actor Jim Reiter delivers every witticism gently and expertly.
As the frantic Mrs. Bennet, Carol Randolph is frequently hilarious. Uninhibited by the dictates of social decorum or subtlety, she freely creates uproarious comedy as the anxious mother of five daughters whose major goal is finding worthy suitors for each.
The five Bennet daughters are a diverse mix, from the giddy youngest two, Kitty (Liz Kinder) and Lydia (Solveig Moe), who are often rude, selfish and silly. Kinder and Solveig are properly annoying, especially in their tantrums, and Kinder is also convincing in a second role as Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas, who eventually marries Mr. Collins.
The middle Bennet sister is studious Mary, who shares her strong opinions on a variety of subjects. As played by Stephanie Ramsey, Mary is an interesting mix of confidence and insecurity, somewhat detached from family problems.
Often embarrassed by her mother's zealous matchmaking is bright, independent Elizabeth. The eldest daughter, sweet-natured Jane (Alyssa Bouma) is the first to find romance when she meets Mr. Bingley (Grayson Owen), who is instantly smitten with her. Bouma charmingly conveys Jane's early attraction to Bingley, as well as her distress at his later departure.
Every actor is perfectly cast, with some competently playing two roles. Darcy's aunt — the haughty Lady Catherine — is skillfully played by Esther Schwarzbauer, who also plays a gentle housekeeper. The many sides of the mysterious George Wickham are well captured by Rob Morley.
The main character is Elizabeth, and Caitlin McWethy owns the role as she reveals every facet of this fascinating, independent woman. She delights in exchanging barbs with haughty Mr. Darcy and later rejects his tentative advances. Elizabeth's gradual comprehension of Darcy's strengths finally results in her expression of love in a breathtaking revelation.
Michael Ryan Neely is equally adept at revealing the many facets of the enigmatic Darcy — haughty and shy, exhibiting discomfort, confusion and attraction to Elizabeth. Through expressive eyes, Neely conveys his glowing fascination with Elizabeth, and in joyous words he finally gives voice to his rapturous love.
"Pride and Prejudice" continues at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 21, and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday, at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park. Tickets are $18 and $20 and may be purchased at AnnapolisShakespeare.org or by calling the box office at 410-415-3513 or 301-836-1620.