Slightly Askew's First Impressions Gives New Life to Pride & Prejudice

Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy (Kristen Strom and John Wolbers) discuss the fascinating Bennet family.
Caroline Bingley and Mr. Darcy (Kristen Strom and John Wolbers) discuss the fascinating Bennet family. JOEY RUMPELL

First Impressions

Conceived by Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye. Based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Presented by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble through May 27 at the Chapel (6238 Alexander Drive; Tickets are $15 to $20.

Mr. Bennet, country gentleman and indulgent father of five high-spirited daughters, is gently chiding his family over their excitement at the new male neighbor when everybody freezes. Actor Carl Overly Jr. steps forward, abandoning Bennet's chuckling, gleeful voice to address us directly in his own strong baritone: "I recognize that this is a novel about upper-class privilege and an affluent minority that is very different from my own world — and yet I can't help but enjoy it." Immediately Overly is gone again and Mr. Bennet is back with his loving family.

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's First Impressions is a lightly enhanced adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. The enhancements come from the first impressions the book made on readers. Slightly Askew crowd-sourced these recollections, both positive and negative, and now deploys them as sudden monologues throughout the show. These memories of the novel serve as an interior life for some characters, and act as an occasional commentary track for the play itself. The result is a play that winks at the arcane social interactions of Austen's comedy of manners even as it lovingly follows the plot to its joyous denouement. First Impressions is an ebullient and effervescent take on Pride and Prejudice that will both please the novel's devotees and charm even its crustiest haters (I speak from my own experience on this count).

The action, such as it is, centers on the Bennet sisters' race against time. One of the five needs to marry into money to save the family home, which will be inherited by a male cousin upon the death of Mr. Bennet. If one of the Bennet girls can't snag a winner, their mother will be left out in the cold.

The new male neighbor, Charles Bingley (Michael Cassidy Flynn), seems a likely lad for matrimony. He's got the cash and the breeding, but he pals around with the over-proud Mr. Darcy (John Wolbers).

Several of the interjected first impressions are inspired by the protean hotness of Mr. Darcy, either as depicted on the page or as portrayed by Colin "Hot Sex" Firth in the BBC adaptation. Wolbers is welcomed to the play by a fawning honor guard of breathless women who coo "Mr. Darcy!" as he prowls the catwalk that opens up between them. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (Ellie Schwetye) make an undeniably attractive pair as they prick each other's pride, spar and slowly fall in love.

The Bennet sisters listen in on someone's secrets. - JOEY RUMPELL
The Bennet sisters listen in on someone's secrets.

Director Rachel Tibbetts captures the moment they realize their mutual attraction during a glorious ball held at Bingley Manor. The cast slows to half-speed during a dance and Darcy and Elizabeth lock eyes; slowly he smiles, then she glows. In a crowded room only these two people exist.

Their only obstacle to happiness is their own pride — well, that and the Reverend Collins (a very funny Andrew Kuhlman). Collins is the cousin who will inherit the family home, and he's also a supercilious and self-important ninny who proposes marriage to Elizabeth (her mother has already accepted on her behalf). He touches Elizabeth's face as if he's a wooden puppet petting a dog, which repulses her and sees him swiftly kicked to the curb. Now if only she and Darcy can work out their monumental personal problems.

Of course, this all ends happily with marriages and succor for Mrs. Bennet. It's not the tale itself but the telling of it that resonates across time. Austen's wit, the cast's skillful treatment of the material and the numerous sexual awakenings wrought by Mr. Darcy, the nineteenth century's immortal panty-dropper, make First Impressions a pleasure to behold.

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