Period pieces might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those enchanted by the past, SummerFest's production of Pride and Prejudice is a piping hot cup of crisp Earl Grey made to haughty British standards.
Jane Austen's classic tale of a 19th-century family's plight to marry off its five daughters before their father's death renders them destitute has been reproduced countless times in film and television. Austen's eloquent but densely affected language can prove unwieldy off the page, but Jon Jory's staged adaptation trims all but the necessary ornament from the language.
The result is an organic, clean script that remains true to Austen's aesthetic and time period while moving the plot and audience along with genteel grace.
Director Sullivan Canaday White deserves praise not only for her vision of simple elegance — a multilayered stage awash in lavender and devoid of many props provides a muted visual background, one that allows Missy Johnston's period costuming to "pop' in contrast — but also her tight, precise use of blocking combined with a fierce attention to language and pacing.
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That all creates a warm, almost melodic experience that freshens our experience of whether spunky, sharp-tongued Elizabeth Bennet will find her Mr. Darcy.
Ellie Clark excels in this lead role. The character of Elizabeth must be fiercely independent and witty, but she also must be likeable, even winsome; Clark strikes this balance well. While her Lizzie isn't afraid to strike a venomous linguistic blow to a hapless suitor, she also displays a palpable, disconcerted conscience that struggles and frets over what is right and what can or cannot be done about it. Clark seems even more seasoned and at ease on stage than she did as Cleopatra in SummerFest's 2008 production of Antony and Cleopatra.
Someone we have not seen much on a Lexington stage in many years is Tom Phillips, who has returned to the Bluegrass from Los Angeles and is playing Elizabeth's complicated love interest, Mr. Darcy.
Jory's script doesn't give Phillips a lot of room to play with the character beyond being appropriately rich, handsome and gentlemanly. Being admired or pondered by the Bennet girls at a distance, Darcy has the chief dramatic responsibility of oozing 19th-century sex appeal. However, Phillips gets a chance to flex his acting muscles and reveal a slice of Darcy's inner workings in a crushingly romantic scene in which he confesses his feelings for Elizabeth, proposing to her unexpectedly and with dour results.
Strong supporting cast members round out the ensemble, all of whom greatly benefited from Patti Heying's sharp dialect coaching. Rarely do I see a show where difficult British accents are mastered not just accurately, but so tightly and consistently.
Walter Tunis adds carefully drawn dimension to his role of Mr. Bennet, father of five girls who feels the financial burden of his eventual death (without a male heir, the family will forfeit all of its possessions and status) competing with his genuine affection and amiable respect for the girls' minds.
If Mr. Bennet is aloof about his daughter's impending marriages, Mrs. Bennet more than makes up for it. Trish Clark makes a rare and delightful appearance as an overbearing but well-meaning mother who has marriage fever. Clark's performance is bright, focused, and frequently provides the comic relief or pivotal beat of timing that keeps the production clipping along.
Dathan Powell's set design and Jeff Fightmaster's lighting design work in elegant, if understated, tandem. The technical highlight of the show is a lovely, working fountain that adorns the single set piece. As the second act drives deeper toward resolution and the sky above The Arboretum deepens, Fightmaster delicately lights the fountain, which creates a stirring visual effect by curtain.