Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 25, 2020

Review: Tales of Two Women: Lizzie and Jane

“Pride and Prejudice”
Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through March 8, 2020

“Jane Eyre”
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 14, 2020

By Shera Cohen

Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre are approximately the same age, intelligent and clever, and live in England, albeit a few decades apart, but that is really no matter in the productions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” at Playhouse on Park and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” at Hartford Stage, respectively.

Back-to-back performances in one weekend are a theatre-lover’s dream come true. The plays, obviously based on the famous novels of the same names, bring required high school English class assignments to life. Lizzie and Jane take steps off the page to the stage, seemingly with ease. If only Austen and Bronte could experience their works, having been adapted and molded by Kate Hamill (“Pride’) and Elizabeth Williamson (“Jane”) for today’s audience, they would be ecstatic. The authors of these two, now classic, 19th century books shunned the mores of their female peers; wanting more than a life of boredom, seeming content, and marrying up. In her own way, Lizzie and Jane demand respect.

Photo by Meredith Longo
The contrasts of the primary character, her setting, and those who surround each are distinctly opposite. Austen’s story of brightness and gaiety is oftentimes outright funny. The plot instantly reveals that Mrs. Bennet’s (well-acted by Maia Guest) sole mission in life is to find husbands for her four daughters, especially the single-minded Lizzie. While Mother Bennet sees no problem in marrying off Jane (the pretty one) and eventually Lydia (the young one), she has given up on Mary (the plain one, charmingly depicted by Jane Bradley). Lizzie becomes the challenge.

Except for two actors, the remaining six portray over a dozen characters with gender and age-switching fast and furiously behind the curtain, onstage, and in the aisle directly in front of the audience. Many times an actor dresses and speaks as one character on the right side of her body and the left side as the man. However, rest assured, there is never confusion as to who is who in this pseudo combination of any Shakespearian comedy and/or Moliere farce.

A special bravo to Matthew Krob as Miss Bingley (a zaftig gentile lady), Winkham (a slippery military officer), and Mr. Collins (a prissy preacher). Kimberly Chatterjee and Nicholas Ortiz, our flirtatious lovers bring Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing” to mind, offering proof that the woman is of superior intellect and the male the well-meaning dullard.  Chatterjee and Ortiz create a nice match as they coquettishly play the game of teasing the other into an admission of their character’s love.

What makes “Pride” run like a well-wound clock are Kate Hamil’s adaptation and Jason O’Connell’s direction. The costumes, set design, English accents appropriately depict the early 1800’s. Ratcheting up the humor a few notches are the dance interludes between scenes; you know, those boring 30-seconds when sets are changed. Not at POP! The actors dance and audience stomp their feet to Bee Gees’ disco. “Pride and Prejudice” takes very little seriously.

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
For the most part, “Jane Eyre” lives in a dark, shadowy place with black silhouettes. The set is stark, and huge drawing room doors connote the many rooms and floors of the house. But darkness is even more than Jane Eyre would hope for. In few words, looks, and stances actress Helen Sadler, seated in a dark blue matronly dress at a small desk, narrates Jane’s story. It is a harder story to hear than for her to tell. Jane expects so little; anything can mean a lot. Yet Sadler slowly creates an intelligent and subdued wont in Jane’s demeanor and words, that she is due more than scraps of an existence.

“Jane Eyre” is a love story classic with a capitol “L”. Yet, trust is an equal partner for both lead characters. Chandler Williams begins his relationship with Jane as happenstance, then feigned gruffness, an awkward yearning, and eventually love. Williams is superb as the brooding, enigmatic Rochester. It doesn’t hurt that he is a Colin Firth look-alike and sound-alike.

The story is as much a mystery as it is a romance. Elizabeth Williamson directs her own adaptation of Bronte’s book in small bits and pieces strung together prudently with the sliding doors to create scenes.

“Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” were written in the 19th century. These characters and stories are apropos today; women are recognized as stronger than even they thought they were. Standing up for oneself isn’t a concept; it is a conscious action.