Eastern Mennonite University’s theater is bringing a modern twist to Jane Austen this weekend with award-winning playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Austen’s classic story of fateful love and familial duty set in 18th century England gets a makeover that takes the heartbreak and puts it on its head to highlight the absurdity of past stereotypes and expectations.
“Her plays are incredibly clever and well written. There are so many layers between the characters and also social commentary happening at the same time,” Stanley Swartz, guest director, said. “It has so many universal elements where people are trying to do what they find right but not necessarily what is socially acceptable. She addressed so many issues: female-male relationships, female-male stereotypes, bullying and finding your own identity.”
Swartz is directing the school’s fall play as EMU theater program director Justin Poole is abroad leading an academic trip for the semester.
Swartz, who worked for 31 years as the theater teacher at Harrisonburg High School, returns to the scene after retiring in spring 2018. Poole said it has been a treat for everyone involved to work alongside Swartz, an icon in the local theater community.
“Stan’s students love him. He’s easy to work with, has a collaborative spirit and has a strong artistic vision. I’ve heard great things about him and this production from my students,” Poole said.
Gwen Mallow, a senior English major at EMU, has worked behind the EMU stage before, but she said she jumped at the opportunity to perform one of her department’s most treasured stories. Performing as Elizabeth’s sister, Jane Bennet, Mallow said Hamill’s rendition retains the key elements of Austen’s iconic literature, but she has transformed it into a humorous and easily digestible tale.
“It’s definitely more humorous, and there is a unique modern spin on it, but I find that regardless of the language or the medium in which it is given, it’s still a great archetypal story of people who thought they were not meant for each other who were at heart,” Mallow said.
Shannon Dove, technical director, said he normally is bored by Austen’s airy narratives of life and love, which are weighed down by the unrelatable lives of affluent figures with fickle worries who take themselves too seriously. But EMU’s show is instead a lively act that invites audience members to look back on the callous ideas of the past and laugh at the absurdity of “the game of love.”
“I’m personally not a huge Jane Austen fan. … To me, it just reads like a bunch of rich, privileged people just sitting around ... and this play is not that. The source material is the same, a lot of the words are the same, but this play is totally not that,” Dove said. “They take it seriously, but you don’t have to.”
Swartz said returning to work in the arts has been rewarding because directing is a passion of his, but he has no plans to return to the theater game. Instead, Swartz is scheduled to instruct two speech courses in the spring at EMU.
Opening night is tonight. The show runs today and Saturday and Nov. 21, 22 and 23 and 7 p.m., and a matinee on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. Tickets can be reserved at emu.edu/boxoffice or by calling (540) 432-4582. Admission is $14 for adults, $5 for EMU and Bridgewater students and $11 for seniors and children.
EMU’s Main Stage Theater is located inside the University Commons at 1307 Park Road in Harrisonburg.
“You have to sit and watch the play with a smile on your face the whole way, and it’ll hit you with some profound moments,” Swartz said.