REVIEW: Romancing the Story at the WAC

(From left) Chloe Dworkin, Cerris Morgan-Moyer, Julie McIlvaine, Nick Toren and Darren Richardson.

Photo by Matt Petit

Friday night’s radio theatre performance of “Pride & Prejudice” by L.A. Theatre Works reminded me of the power of pure storytelling.

The actors, though in period costume, stood at microphones positioned across the stage. A squat desk held sound equipment and props stage left. A large backdrop rippled with projections behind them. There was no dramatic lighting, no fight scene, no set changes; but for over three hours I was entranced. Adapted from Jane Austen’s iconic novel by Christina Calvit, the premise is basically the frustrated courtship of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The pride and prejudice of the title is a description of their conflict – each decides too quickly the character of the other and must overcome their own assurance that they are correct in their assumptions. For many, it is one of the greatest love stories of all time and Friday’s performance showed how a truly great story really only needs to be told.

For much of the Arts these days, hybridity is vogue. But as a radio-theatre hybrid, L.A. Theatre Works has been around for over 20 years, garnering for themselves a sterling reputation and attracting to their casts the likes of John Lithgow, Annette Benning and Hilary Swank. Brad Pitt and George Clooney are among the cast of their next play in Los Angeles. Recordings of their plays are aired around the world and used in schools across the country.

Nicholas Hormann and Jane Carr

Photo by Matt Petit

The cast for this tour is of no smaller stature than LATW’s other silver screen additions. Jane Carr gives a tremendous performance as the silly, imposing Mrs. Bennet and the over-privileged Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Among her many credits, Carr is the voice of Grandma Fletcher in Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb,” which would make her the coolest by far according to every person I know under the age of fifteen. Nicholas Hormann manages the distinctive portrayal of five of the male parts with grace and subtlety. He is also perhaps best known for his television work, which includes appearances in “Parks & Recreation,” “Desperate Housewives” and even “Seinfeld.” All but the two principles take on multiple roles. Diane Adaire, Darren Richardson, Chloe Dworkin, Jill Renner and Cerris Morgan-Moyer complete the supporting cast without a single weak link.

At the fore, Elizabeth Bennet is gently handled by the wonderful Julia McIlvaine. The role of Mr. Darcy is fairly nailed by Nick Toren, who has graced the stage of The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, one of my old haunts. He’s also appeared in the Pink Panther, “Mad Men,” and “How I Met Your Mother.” Among my favorite moments of the performance was a ballroom scene dance between Darcy and Elizabeth, delicately holding hands across the void of two microphones (remember, we’re in the early 19th century here). It is a moment so softly choreographed that it misses none of the possibilities of the exchange. In fact, every movement on stage feels enhanced for how rarely the actors actually use their legs. As tensions build, Darcy might move to a microphone closer or farther from his paramour. The effect is heavy-handed, but well, effective. The posturing of Austen’s characters is amplified, lifted by the actors’ limited mobility on stage – I could almost see the paragraph breaks, the chapters opening and closing. Here, the story is the thing. The pure bend of it in the air.

The tour celebrates the 200th anniversary of the original novel’s publication. I am thrilled to see the recent resurgence in Austen’s popularity, a testament to the timeless quality of her worlds. This was my introduction to L.A. Theatre Works and I will be on the lookout for future opportunities to witness their breathing life into great works. It was simply a lovely evening spent with a wonderful romance. I hope that with the future move of larger venue events, the Walton Arts Center will become home to more caliber tours of remarkable theatre.

Friday’s performance certainly seems to promise so.

Tobias Wray
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.