Elizabeth and Jane Bennet (played by Collette Astle and Hannah McKechnie) in a new play based on Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice.” Photo: Courtesy of Goddard Riverside Community Center.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Elizabeth Bennet is an empowering female character in classic literature.
Jane Austen's heroine has inspired a variety of screen and stage adaptations (including a parody book and movie featuring zombies) of Austen's enduring novel “Pride and Prejudice.” And it's the character's independence and boldness that made it the perfect play to stage during Goddard Riverside's Women History Artist Month (WHAM) festival.
“When Susan Macaluso (creative director of WHAM) asked what we could do for Women's History Month, I thought, of course, 'Pride and Prejudice!' said Susane Lee, who wrote and directed the adaptation. “There are so many wonderful women [in this story] and they're so strong and so interesting.”
Now in its third year, WHAM is a month-long festival celebrating art, music and theatre created about and by women. Organizers faced an unusual obstacle in putting on the festival this year, according to Macaluso, when unexpected renovations at the community center forced the group to find new venues for the various events with just a couple of weeks notice.
The Advent Lutheran Church was especially kind, Macaluso said, in becoming a partner of the festival and hosting many of the events — including an opera concert and solo stage performances — that will take place in the coming weeks.
Earlier this year, Lee, who serves as the executive director of the Hudson Warehouse theater company, wrote the adaptation that began its run March 8 at the West End Theatre.
“I know the story so well that I was inspired. I added a lot more to this adaptation,” said Lee, noting that she wanted to elevate the women of the play and fill out each of the five Bennet sisters' stories. “I always felt that Mary [the middle Bennet sister] had always been neglected in all of the movie versions. When I was reading the book, there are so many narratives in the book that are so powerful that I never saw on the screen — so I gave all of those lines to Mary.”
While it is, at its roots, a love story between Elizabeth (played by Collette Astle) and Mr. Darcy (Jake Lesh), the most striking scenes of the play showcased Elizabeth's courageous independence.
“Without marriage you really have such low status within their society. So for her to refuse two marriage proposals, she really put her future in jeopardy — but she did it,” Lee said. “She had to follow her own heart. I just found her courage inspiring.”
In years past, Lee has adapted and directed plays for the WHAM festival, including “His Girl Friday” and “Trojan Woman.”
“We did Trojan Woman last year because we were all kind of depressed at the state of the world,” she said. “This year I wanted to lift our spirits and have everyone walking out feeling happy and joyous.”
The show will run from Thursday, March 14 through Sunday March 17. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., except for Sunday, when the show wraps up with a 3:00 p.m. matinee. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at goddard.org/WHAM, where additional WHAM events are listed as well.
Lee hopes audiences will get to know these characters anew through her adaptation. “What I really love about this story is that all the women, and all of the sisters, have very strong story arcs,” she said. “That's really what I wanted to do with this production: to give every woman and every girl a voice.”