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Austen-tatious: Quill Theatre’s “Pride and Prejudice” tells the non-stereotypical story of a young woman finding love

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If anyone needed physical evidence of the continuing cultural impact of "Pride and Prejudice," a trip to London's Hyde Park would certainly clarify things.

There, rising from a lake, is a 12-foot-tall fiberglass statue of Colin Firth in a clingy wet shirt, a tribute to the 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen's novel.

"Pride and Prejudice" has seen numerous adaptations on stage and screen. This weekend, Quill Theatre will have its turn bringing to life this love story of manners and expectations during Britain's Regency era.

As in the novel, Christina Calvit's stage adaptation centers on Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent, strong-willed 20-year-old with a tendency to judge others from her initial impressions. As she attends balls and her sisters marry, Elizabeth is both repelled and attracted by Mr. Darcy, a wealthy and aloof 28-year-old.

"It is a romantic and compelling love story of two people seemingly not destined to be with each other," says director Christopher Owens, adding that the show is relatable to modern audiences in its focus on women and their pushing of societal norms. "We recognize much of [Elizabeth's] struggle, and we cheer her on."

He compares Calvit's adaptation to a radio play: "The characters basically go between narration and dialogue here, not one narrator who stands on the side and tells you things."

Like many, Irene Kuykendall first encountered "Pride and Prejudice," as a teenager, setting off on reading frenzy.

"I fell in love with the language," says Kuykendall, who stars as Elizabeth. "That was my first interaction with Jane Austen. I devoured 'Emma' and 'Mansfield Park.'"

One reason Kuykendall says people love "Pride and Prejudice" is that the two romantic leads put each other in their places through the course of the story.

"It's so refreshing to have a nonstereotypical romance," Kuykendall says. "It's a story about honesty, being honest with ourselves about what our shortcomings and faults are, and building relationships."

Kuykendall says she's enjoyed inhabiting such a beloved character.

"Elizabeth is very daring. She's not apologetic. She doesn't apologize for being on a lower social level than some people," she says. "She's also very playful. She loves to tease, and she loves to get a rise out of people."

Opposite Kuykendall onstage is real-life boyfriend Axle Burtness, who portrays Mr. Darcy.

"They've been together a lot, so they bring a personal trust and dynamic" to the show, Owens says. "Physically, they're perfect for this."

Playing Elizabeth's mother Mrs. Bennet is Melissa Johnston Price. A comedic role, Mrs. Bennet is preoccupied with marrying her five daughters off to wealthy men, as their family's land is entailed and none of the women can inherit it.

"[Mrs. Bennet] means well, but exhibits some personality traits that wouldn't be considered proper in high class society," Johnston Price says. "She's persuasive. She's kind of brash, but loves her family, loves her daughters, and wants to see the best for them."

Johnston Price also plays strict and domineering society woman Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the play.

"My characters are the exact opposites of each other," says Johnston Price, who will undergo "lighting fast" changes of costume and demeanor through the show. "Lady Catherine is upper crust and knows it and uses [her power]."

Aided by choreographer Jeremy Gershman, Quill's production will re-create a half-dozen dances of the Regency period; even the moving of set pieces will be timed to music.

"Dance was a huge social event, normally the only place to interact and meet people during this time frame, but it's also a metaphor for people trying each other out," Owens says. "It's going to be a gorgeous show."

Though filled with humor and wit, Johnston Price says that at heart "Pride and Prejudice" is a story concerning Elizabeth Bennet's development.

"It's about a young woman coming of age and finding love," Johnston Price says. "Ultimately they end up with each other, and it doesn't get any better than that.

Quill Theatre's "Pride and Prejudice" plays March 7-24 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Leslie Cheek Theater, 200 N. Boulevard. For information, visit quilltheatre.org or call 340-1405.

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