Shakespeare fans will delight in "Pride and Prejudice"

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LENOX — She is leaping a stile with the hem of her skirt five inches deep in mud. She is dancing late into the night and laughing at a man who will not dance with her. She is sitting with her sister when her sister has a fever and washing her face with a cool cloth.

Elizabeth Bennet has earned admiration for her intelligence, quick responses and resilience — and her fine eyes — for 200 years. And she is honest.

"She makes it seem easy to be strong-willed and to know her own mind," said Madeleine Maggio, who will play Elizabeth this weekend, as Shakespeare & Company greets the holidays with a staged reading of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Any young woman who knows Austen loves Elizabeth, Maggio said. As the middle of three sisters, she has always seen herself as Elizabeth. She remembered coming out of the most recent "Pride and Prejudice" film with a friend and dancing for pure excitement in the snow.

Choosing this show, the company is also reaching back joyfully to its founding years in Edith Wharton's home at The Mount, 40 years ago.

"We love classic women writers," said Ariel Bock, company member and producing associate. "We've sprung from Edith Wharton in a way, and we have a deep appreciation in our company [for work like hers]."

As the company looked for a holiday show this year, she said, they wanted to celebrate with the local community. These performances will benefit Multicultural Bridge and Berkshire Children and Families.

And as the cast prepared for rehearsal, laughing and leaning casually on each other, she told them this is a story about relationships.

Elizabeth and her four sisters live in a country town, and their lives are about to change in ways none of them could have predicted. A cosmopolitan young man buys a house in town and arrives with family and friends. And Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy.

He is stubborn, reserved — stuck, said Ryan Winkles, who plays one of Darcy's rare friends, Charles Bingley.

Darcy's only family is a sister 10 years younger. He lost his parents long ago, and they have left him powerful, independent and alone.

He is well aware that people have been trying to take advantage of him ever since his father died, and he has become resigned, Maggio and Winkles said. And it takes someone like Elizabeth to shake him up.

She is not impressed, and she is not amused. And she, too, has reason to take care. She lives in a world where men can make or break women, Bock said, and women don't have much choice.

Elizabeth's family is living on her father's income while he is alive, and she knows, as they all do, that they will have nothing to live on without him. Women have to rely on men. As Elizabeth's friend, Charlotte Lucas, makes clear in the story, marriage is "the only honorable provision for well-educated women of small fortune."

And, at the same time, women face intense social pressure in their relationships with men. As the story also makes clear, a woman who makes the wrong choice about a man may be damned, exiled, or dead.

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But then, as now, they didn't have to take it quietly.

"[Austen's] women speak what they think and feel," Bock said, "and they don't always do what society tells them to do. That's why so many of us love them. When we're stuck in what we're supposed to do, it takes guts to break out of it. Her women have guts."

And they rely on each other, Maggio said. She glories in the warm relationships between the sisters.

"It's such a joy," she said, "to have five sisters and explore how we can relate as women."

Jane, as the oldest sister, carries the family on her shoulders.

And Mr. Bingley loves her in the face of pressure to give her up. He feels social and family strictures of his own, Winkles said, "being in love with someone, knowing your heart is completely with them, and they are not of a social class, or don't have enough money, or her sister's married the wrong man."

Bingley relies on Darcy's level-headedness, and, with a heart full of Jane, he will listen to Darcy's worldly concerns.

"He's sweet and delightful," Winkles said, "but he's not stupid. He's not a dupe."

He is kind. People often read kind as stupid or weak, he said, but in Charles and Jane, he sees strength.

"We have a hopeful feeling about the men and women at the center of the story," Bock said. "They bring out the best in each other."

When they can't change an event or a pressure, they can be there to face it together.

"I love what Mr. Bennet says," Winkles said, recalling Jane's father teasing her about her affections "You are each of you so complying that nothing will ever be resolved on, so easy that every servant will cheat you, and so generous that you will always exceed your income and you will be happy."

They will keep close to Austen's language in the adaptation they are performing, Bock said.

And her language is beautiful, Winkles said. He imagines people delighting in lines they know, as a Shakespeare fan will savor "To be or not to be."

"It is a truth universally acknowledged " he murmured, smiling — the opening line of the novel, talking about his own character — "that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."


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