A new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is playing at one of Pittsburgh’s most charming landmark settings. Marsha Mayhak created her stage version for Steel City Shakespeare Center’s singular production at Heathside Cottage, a cozy Victorian home in Fineview. From the hillside perch over the Northside, audiences can take in the city below before stepping inside a venue that is indeed a private home.
It’s a rare treat and compact experience for theater and literature lovers who enjoy relishing the text over spectacle. The cottage interiors–likely the original library, parlor, and dining room–provide the set and the audience its imagination. Here, we eavesdrop on the Bennet family and some of Elizabeth and Darcy’s most endearing exchanges. If you love Austen, do secure tickets now for the final weekend.
Alan Irvine directs a cast of six women who play 13 of the novel’s characters. That’s enough to tell the familiar story.
Yes, Austen is talky; narration from her 1813 book assists the action as actors make swift transitions from exposition to characters. Each cast member proves to be an adept storyteller (as is their stage director Irvine); they perform many monologues and conversations. Virtually every word is audible. While there’s a feeling some more cutting might benefit the pace, the story was best told when the actors resisted the urge to speed up the descriptive passages.
Rare intimacy and well-spoken text in a lovely space makes up for the need to employ more imagination. Irvine moves the actors as well as can be expected in such close quarters while costume elements are simple and props sparse. This immersive theater requires suspending disbelief, supported capable accents and amazing focus, given the actors’ proximity to audience members. The action is no more than one to four feet from most patrons.
The result supports that each cast member bring much nuance to their roles. Irvine wisely lets the cast discover what makes their characters tick. The women playing men don’t overreach for masculine attitudes or postures. This is more about personalities, conventions, and social classes. Mayhak’s dialogue is straight out of Austen and plays very nicely.
The Bennet family is close knit, but lacks means. In the 19th century, the fate of women with no dowries and the inability to inherit land left women like the Bennet sisters with limited choices in life. So Austen’s novels may foreshadow feminism but are wrought with the realism of class hierarchies.
Marsha Mayhak’s Elizabeth Bennet is charming, smart and capable–just as Austenites like her. Mayhak is certainly a lovely match for this role and provides a strong center for the action even as she makes some prejudicial assumptions about Fitzwilliam Darcy. She sweetly questions the trappings of the more fortunate and sometimes haughty individuals around her and Mayhak’s expressions and quiet reactions are just right.
Elizabeth Glyptis is Mr. Darcy, considered the proud lead character of the title–or is he really? Glyptis manages this challenging role well, capturing Darcy’s opaque nature, showing little while she must indeed convey the most important elements of Lizzy’s cryptic and intriguing acquaintance.
Mayhak and Glyptis relish the couple’s famous moments, the ones fans anticipate: Darcy arriving home unexpectedly when Lizzy is touring his country estate; his rescue of Lydia (the wayward Bennet sister); and the eventual proposal and the pair’s banter about how it all came about.
As Lizzy’s closest sister Jane Bennet and clergyman Collins, Anne Rematt brings a lovely presence and grace to both roles. Her subtle choices belie Jane’s concern that she may never marry and wind up an old maid.
Angela Anderson wonderfully distinguishes each of her three characters–Mr. Bennet, the affable father; the disposable friend Charlotte; and the pompous Lady Catherine. Anna Gergerich has fun with Mrs. Bennet, snobby Caroline, and deceptive Wickham, making some entertaining choices. Mary Pochatko displays great range from the likeable friend Bingley to the thoughtful Aunt Gardinier to the silly Lydia Bennet. (Several Bennet sisters didn’t make it to this version, but the central ladies are well intact.)
At a sold-out opening weekend performance when capacity of 22 was exceeded by five, amiable and courteous patrons moved between rooms, often taking the smaller stools along to guarantee a perch. You can expect more ease this weekend. Moving around instead of sitting for two acts and an intermission (2 hours and 45 minutes total) isn’t a bad thing–a nice change when so many days include our sedentary viewing. Outside a fire pit was lit, so intermission was equally charming with some warmth to take off the chill.
However, Heathside isn’t really handicapped accessible and there are a few steps inside. The tight quarters, movement, and varied seating could be challenging for some, so inquire in advance if this is a concern.
Heathside Cottage is located at 416 Catoma St., in Pittsburgh’s Fineview neighborhood (15212). Driving, take the route from Federal Street from central Northside rather than East Ohio Street to avoid hills and potholes on the more eastern route.
Performances feature “extras” (like a National Aviary falcon show and tell on the night I attended), so you can choose an added value. With tickets at $10-15, it’s a great deal for an intimate adventure and some fun extras like a talk back, Jane Austen trivia, and Regency dancing. Details for remaining performances on Thurs., Sat., and Sun., Oct. 27, 29, and 30 only are found on the SCSC website.
Thank you to Steel City Shakespeare Center for providing a complimentary admission on a sold-out night and a close-up falcon experience.