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Adapting a novel for the stage is almost like translating a text into another language. The task is especially challenging with a book like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice , which relies on the wittiness of its language and the relationships among its characters to drive the story and provide momentum.
Luckily, Utah Shakespearean Festival's new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice had two savvy theater directors -- Joe Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan -- for playwrights. The two are experts at propelling words into action. Instead of having the characters tell us their back stories and read letters, we see them acted out in little tableaus that illustrate them. Each scene flows fluidly into the next, triggered by a connecting line and linked by Jaymi Lee Smith's subtly shifting lighting and Joe Payne's classical music score.
Blake Robison's smooth and stylish direction is perfectly in sync. Actors pause for a second, then move into the next scene through the doors of Jo Winiarski's set, creating a parade of moments and memories from their evolving lives. Those windows also visualize the contrast between the sophisticated Regency manor houses and the bucolic English countryside that envelops them.
This adaptation also deftly balances the romance that gradually develops between Elizabeth (Kate Cook) and Darcy (Michael Brusasco) and Austen's satirical dissection of the highly structured, class-conscious society through which they must navigate. Supporting characters, in almost Dickensian fashion, are sketched briefly, but vividly, with only a couple of trademark characteristics, for example, Mr. Collins (Brian Vaughn) with his slavish devotion to wealth and status, and the haughty arrogance of Lady Catherine (Carol Linnea Johnson).
This allows us to focus on the complexity and ambiguity of Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship. They are equally guilty of pride and prejudice. Elizabeth trusts her judgment of Wickham (Quinn Mattfeld) and Darcy, but it betrays her in both cases, leaving her shaken and sorry. Darcy believes he must put social position above his growing emotional attachment to Elizabeth.
Both characters change and grow as a result of encountering each other, a journey that's consistently clear in Cook and Brusasco's portrayals. Their first-act meetings are a delightful mix of attraction and avoidance; they are intrigued by their intellectual compatibility, but every time they are together, they blurt out the wrong thing. Both actors soften their approaches in the second act: Cook trades brittle banter for quieter understanding, and Brusasco becomes less awkward and more compassionate.
Other performances are also entertaining, all working to embody the confining dimensions of Elizabeth and Darcy's world: Ellen Crawford's outrageously dithery, melodramatic Mrs. Bennet; Jeff Steitzer's ironic, outspoken Mr. Bennet; Melinda Pfundstein's sweet, supportive Jane; Vaughn's smug, stuffy Collins; Mattfeld's glib, duplicitous Wickham; Sara Griffin's empty-headed, gossipy Lydia; and Johnson's domineering Lady Catherine.
Pride and Prejudice is a talky play, but Austen lovers will admire this adaptation's faithfulness to the spirit of the original and its ability to maintain our emotional involvement with Elizabeth and Darcy amid the constant activity that surrounds them.
Witty, cleverly crafted adaptation of the Jane Austen novel is emotionally satisfying -- and an incisive portrait of the English society of its era.
When » Reviewed July 10; plays in repertory at 2 and 8 p.m. through Saturday, Aug. 28.
Where » Randall Jones Theatre, Utah Shakespearean Festival, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City
Tickets » $21-$68, at 800-PLAYTIX or www.bard.org
Running time » Two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission)