Smile Politely

An altogether delightful evening

I will confess never to have read Jane Austen’s beloved book Pride and Prejudice. Despite that, thanks to the novel’s prevalence in modern pop culture, I have managed to know quite a lot about the novel and its characters. There are films, miniseries, parodies, graphic novels… Call it a literary contact high.

So, walking into the Parkland College Theatre to view Jon Jory’s adaptation of this well-known story last Thursday, my focus was less on the plot of the play than on how it would look and sound live and in-person. How good would the actors’ accents be? How lush would the costumes look? How would the set manage to be so many different opulent homes?

Nearly all of these questions fell directly out of my head the moment the play began. The moment I saw the characters occupy an elegant, abstract sort of set designed by Moon Jung Kim; the moment Mr. Bennet (played by Randy Offner) spoke to the audience and his posse of daughters chimed in; the moment these actors began telling this story, the plot became as important and absorbing as it had every other time I’ve encountered it.

This is a very good story, and director Joi Hoffsommer has chosen a very enjoyable adaptation.

Since the plot is so deeply infused into our consciousness, I’ll dispense with the recap. Rather, I’ll spend this time telling you how lovely a job the actors in this show have done embodying their characters and telling a rich, romantic, and very sweet story.

I’ve already mentioned Randy Offner, whose Mr. Bennet has always been my favorite character in this piece. Offner’s might not be a name you know, but I expect that to change. His Bennet is so full of mirth, so full of love, so full of mischief that it is impossible not to admire his work and smile at its memory. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “adorable” to describe someone as tall as Offner, but the word fits.

As Bennet’s high-energy busybody of a Missus, Mary Rose Cottingham does the best work I’ve ever seen from her. She seems every inch the devoted, loving, scheming wife and mother, and her interplay with Offner is utterly charming.

And what children this union has brought about! Five daughters, each with her own individual personality and absorbing storyline. As the youngest daughters, Dominique Allen (as the bookish Mary), Olivia Bagan (as the man-chasing livewire Kitty), and Arianne Cohen (as the competitive Lydia) give vivacious, delightful performances and serve as amusing counterpoints to their older sisters. Of all the sisters, Jane is the most reserved. As played by Stephanie Swearingen, she is dear and lovelorn, hoping to improve her family’s fortunes by marrying the earnest Mr. Bingley (a charming David Weisiger). Swearingen carries herself with dignity and a hint of self-deprecation, which makes her a great foil for the eldest Bennet girl, Elizabeth, played by Chelsea Zych (pictured below).

Zych, frankly, is a revelation. I had never seen her act before Thursday’s performance, and I came away a big, big fan. Her Elizabeth needs to be the smartest person in nearly any room, but not so cerebral that her emotions cannot get her into trouble. Zych accomplishes this with seeming ease, gracing the stage with so much humor and intelligence that I hope it will not be long before she has another starring role.

As the men in Elizabeth’s romantic circle, Eric Schacht and Thom Miller play two very different gentlemen. Schacht (pictured, right, with Offner) has the less glamorous part, that of the parson Mr. Collins, but he has so much fun with it that I couldn’thelp but smile when he appeared on stage. His unique way with cadence—reminiscent of the Duke in Moulin Rouge crossed with the love child of Christopher Walken and William Shatner only, y’know, not—makes him a highlight of the show.

And now to Mr. Darcy. What a daunting task it must be, to take on a character whose very name evokes romantic notions. And yet Thom Miller, something of a marvel of restraint, manages to cut an original figure. There is a stiffness to his demeanor that is entirely appropriate, and his—spoiler alert if you’re new to the planet—eventual admission of love for Elizabeth is all the more moving for it.

Taken altogether, this collection of witty quips, modest dances, lovely costumes (by Malia Andrus), and solid acting create an altogether delightful evening. Should you have the time, I highly recommend you spend the evening with the Bennets, the Darcys, and the Bingleys. Their story may not be new, but it is very well told.

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