Mother knows best about matters of the heart in Jane Austen’s world. During the celebrated author’s lifetime, finding a husband was a game, requiring strategy, perfect timing and impeccable grooming.
Mrs. Bennet, the mother of more than a few daughters in Pride and Prejudice, prides herself on knowing how to play the game – and win.
“She is the master of the game. She is so driven because there’s an urgency and drive to get these girls married or they will be destitute. And she wants them to marry well,” Wendy Welch, the actor playing Mrs. Bennet in WaterTower Theatre’s production now playing through Nov. 5, said.
Pride and Prejudice is Kate Hamill’s second adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, continuing her creative ambition of adapting every Austen novel for the stage.
Her first Austen adaption, Sense and Sensibility, made its regional debut at the Dallas Theater Center in 2015.
“Kate’s adaptation is not perhaps as literal as some other people’s, but it’s also not a modern retelling,” Joanie Schultz, the director of the show and WaterTower Theatre’s Artistic Director, said. “She has pulled out what’s important in it and what she finds to be the exciting themes and she teases them out in a way to theatricalize them.”
Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice highlights the rules and strategies of making a love match while maintaining a distinctively feminine voice.
“Every other adaptation I’ve ever read was adapted by a man. I feel like what she’s pulled out feels more resonant and true. I feel like she’s truer to Austen’s intentions,” Schultz said.
With a stage set up like a sports arena, the adaptation is sporty and cheeky.
“She really pulls out and explodes the humor. It’s farcically funny,” Schultz said.
“In the midst of the humor, she still retains the really grounded and serious moments that are very human,” Welch said. “It’s very physically active. People play multiple roles. Men play women sometimes. The actors are on the stage the entire time, even if they are not in the action of the play.”
Welch is one of three actors who does not play multiple named roles. All her energy goes into creating Mrs. Bennet, a woman with a singular mission.
“She’s up at night thinking about strategy. I think in terms of the game, she is the coach. She is like ‘how are we going to do this?’” Schultz said. “From the first moment, we learn from her, ‘It is your job to catch a husband and this is how you do it.’”
Mrs. Bennet desperately pushes her daughters towards what she deems will be the happy ending the entire family needs, aware of the economic disadvantages of being single.
“It’s the way she loves them because she’s taking care of them – and she’s taking care of herself. She’s really making sure they are going to be okay,” Welch said. “Her clock is wound up really tight.”
Despite her best intentions, Mrs. Bennet manages to sabotage herself.
“What she’s not is always delicate or aware or self-aware or socially aware and that’s where she makes her faux pas,” Schultz said.
Her inability to edit herself endangers her own strategy.
“She doesn’t have filters,” Welch said.
In addition to her own lack of discretion, Mrs. Bennet’s greatest challenge is getting her daughters to follow her game plan.
“I think Mrs. Bennet treats each of her daughters very differently and she makes decisions about them in her head,” Schultz said.
Lizzy is particularly troublesome because she is not interested in playing games. She wants to be authentic.
“Lizzy is of a new generation. She decided we’re not here to entrap men,” Schultz said.
As her daughters find their own way through the complicated world of love, Mrs. Bennet grows frustrated with her inability to control the outcome of the game.
“You have hopes and dreams for your kids and when they don’t follow, you have to check yourself. You have to censor. But Mrs. Bennet doesn’t do that,” Welch said.
After a whirl of social outings, flirtatious meetings, and romantic confusion, authenticity triumphs.
“You have to be yourself and not strategize. The people who strategize end up settling or end up with partners who aren’t right for them. The people who are most true to themselves will be in what we expect will be in the happiest partnerships,” Schultz said.
It was not her plan, but Mrs. Bennet is jubilant.
The Regency era’s games of love translate easily to the modern world of online dating and countless media outlets offering romantic advice, but Pride and Prejudice offers hope for those without a game plan.
“We watch two people who are quirky and don’t fit in and they don’t play by the rules,” Schultz said. “We get to watch them win.”