Austen Powers

It helps to love good acting and the writing of Jane Austen in order to really appreciate Arizona Theatre Company's lush, immaculate production of Pride and Prejudice. This practically flawless adaptation, crammed as it is with wonderful acting and gorgeous technical design, should come with a snooze warning for anyone who isn't a fan of 19th-century English literature or anyone expecting anything other than an evening of stunning but profoundly florid storytelling.

Presumably there are people living who don't know that Jane Austen's well-loved novel Pride and Prejudice is the story of the Bennett sisters and their prodigious attempts at attracting husbands in Regency-era England, when Draconian inheritance laws forced women to better their position through matrimony. Renowned director Jon Jory authored this adaptation, which reportedly maintains a good deal of Austen's dialogue, creating a near-reverent homage to the author's time and her people. Jory has built a narrative structure in which reams of dialogue forward the story while also commenting on it, a device that's helpful in reminding us that this is a story about the inequity of antiquated class distinctions. He provides similar shorthand with characters like the girls' flighty mother, whom Jory writes and directs as a target for -- and a commentary on -- "lower class" jibes. As director, he wisely hands his many scene changes to the actors who people them, having them arrive bearing furniture and set pieces as they enter a scene.

I was sorry to leave the company of Robert A. Dahlstrom's gorgeous, minimalist scenic design, which gently reminds us we're in 19th-century England with hints of Regency blue fabrics and darkly ornate furniture, all of it set before a massive edifice meant to suggest the front of an English mansion but that nevertheless -- because actors are made to pop in and out of its many doors and windows throughout the performance -- reminded me of the "joke wall" made popular on television's Laugh-In.

Michael Krass' costumes are period correct and speak volumes about class distinctions, but I'd still rather have seen a lot more really outrageous costuming. If I'm going to sit through two and a half hours of sniffy period dramedy, I want a couple hundred yards of crinoline and a bustle or two.

The cast is exemplary. Julia Dion's Elizabeth -- a complicated, tricky role -- is the story's centerpiece. The gently feminine but tough-as-nails broad bound by Victorian disciplines who's trying to hide her sassy personality behind old-timey decorum can play like hokum. The trick, of course, is to play her as headstrong and big-hearted without resorting to coquettishness, and Dion does this with forthright sass and no saccharine. But frankly, Dion could have been playing a hedgehog or a gun moll for all I care; just let me sit in the dark and listen to her marvelously musical speaking voice, and I'll believe anything she says or claims to be playing.

The supporting players, many of whom perform dual roles, are all superb. Most notable is Pat Nesbit, whose pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh is hilarious; both her performance and her bellowing "I am most seriously displeased!" call to mind Jane Connell's many mirthful performances as Queen Victoria on stage and screen. These players and a dozen equally amazing others are clearly having a whale of a time in this lively retelling of Austen's tale of repressed longing in long-ago London. Their pleasure is contagious and, eventually, even those of us yearning to see more extravagant ball gowns become caught up in their pleasure.