Among the works of literature recognized as classics finding their way to the stage, it would be difficult to find a more overrated example than Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Yet it continues to enjoy its 200-year shelf life, with two local colleges having produced it over the past few years.
Now South Coast Repertory has given this well-ripened chestnut the full-blown professional treatment, adding a modern character to the mix and mounting a visually entrancing version as the opening production of its 48th season. It's still the same vapid plot, but the packaging is delightful.
Two minutes into the show, audiences may believe they've entered the wrong theater as they watch a teen-aged girl (Claire Kaplan) rocking out to screechy music. But then she's handed a copy of the Austen novel and proceeds to read it as the story plays out around her, and she becomes a part of nearly every scene.
The impact of that concept is minimal, but director Kyle Donnelly employs it to link Austen's socially repressive society to today's ultra-modern atmosphere in a spool of theatrical cotton candy that owes as much to Kate Edmunds' opulent settings and Paloma H. Young's period costuming as it does to the stage adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan.
As for the characterizations, SCR's huge cast abounds in early 19th century elegance and overabundance in its depiction of a family of five young ladies yearning for the marriage that will shelter them from the outside world and assure financial security. Some memorable performances emerge, and not always from the principal characters.
A case in point is the fluttery matron of the family, Jane Carr, beautifully effusive at full volume as she appears to channel Aunt Pittipat from "Gone With the Wind." On the flip side is Scott Drummond's annoying and grotesquely geeky clergyman, the theatrical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.
More grounded and "normal" for the period is Dana Green's headstrong Elizabeth, second oldest of the five daughters, who fends off the attentions of the handsome, well-positioned Mr. Darcy (Corey Brill), at least until the final scene. Both performers achieve maximum depth from their shallow characters.
Other impressive renditions are etched by Randy Oglesby as the girls' wise father, Brian Hostenske as the suitor of the eldest daughter, Michael A. Newcomer as a militia man who upsets the family apple cart and Amalia Fite as his child bride, spoiled rotten by matrimony.
Nearly lost in the shuffle is the estimable Kandis Chappell, who has just two scenes as a powerful noblewoman but renders them memorably, particularly in her second appearance. James Newcomb and Eva Barnes excel as the girls' aunt and uncle.
Set pieces are minimal in Edmunds' design, replaced by the scenic projections of Adam Flemming which dominate the stage and give the production a wide-screen cinematic effect. Lap Chi Chu's intricate lighting and Michael Roth's original musical score complete the atmospheric picture.
On its surface, "Pride and Prejudice" may seem unworthy of South Coast Repertory's attention, but this elegant production presents a strong dissenting argument.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go:
What "Pride and Prejudice"
Where: Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Where: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays until Oct. 9
Call: (714) 708-5555