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Latter-day Saint playwright Melissa Larson on her play ‘Pride and Prejudice’

BYU graduate Melissa Larson’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is running at the Hale Center Theater in Orem through Feb. 11

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Playbill for “Pride and Prejudice.”

Playbill for “Pride and Prejudice.” The Hale Center Theater in Orem is best described as intimate. It may be cliche, but this small theater positions viewers alongside the action. The actors and actresses are just a breath away, making their dialogue crystal clear — perfect for the witty adaption of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Hale Center Theater

The Hale Center Theater in Orem is best described as intimate. It may be cliche, but this small theater positions viewers alongside the action. The actors and actresses are just a breath away, making their dialogue crystal clear — perfect for a witty adaption of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Before attending the performance, I reminisced on my first copy of Austen’s famous novel, gifted to me by a woman in my church whom I admire right before I went back to school. I revisited the novel for the first time in years, which made my experience of the play richer, wittier and more unexpected.

A couple from Salt Lake City applauded the performance and told me that one of their favorite parts was the creative reimagining of dialogue — which was something that Melissa Leilani Larson, responsible for the Austen adaptation, suggested that I watch for when attending the play.

Melissa Leilani Larson’s career

Larson is a celebrated writer who has won several awards, including the Lewis National Playwriting Contest for Women and the LDS Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. She has been part of several successful theatrical performances and films, including the Latter-day Saint film “Jane and Emma.”

She is a graduate of Brigham Young University who accidentally stumbled into play writing.

“I always knew I was going to be a writer and I loved to read when I was a kid. I think my parents really coached me to read,” Larson said.

Since writing a short story in elementary school, she decided that she wanted to become a writer. Her education was preparing her to become a novelist, but that soon took a twist.

While a student at BYU, Larson saw a flyer on the wall in a building on campus advertising a playwriting contest with a $500 prize. Larson said that she could use $500 and loved going to plays, so on a whim, she decided to go home and write a play. When her play didn’t win, she decided to enroll in a playwriting class. Since taking that class, she hasn’t looked back.

Larson’s flair for Austen adaptations came later. Barta Heiner, the director of Larson’s “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation, called Larson when she was in graduate school in Iowa and asked her if she ever considered adapting Austen. Larson said that she hadn’t done any adaptations until then, so she first tried adapting “Persuasion.” After that was a success, she then adapted “Pride and Prejudice” for BYU in 2014.

Now her “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation is running at the Hale Center Theater in Orem through Feb. 11, with just a few seats left for purchase. She told me that the local reception of her play has been fantastic.

“There are a couple of romantic scenes in the show that gets the audience to sigh. ... There have been a couple moments where the audience applauded in the middle of the scene,” she said.

The method and thought behind Larson’s work

Austen has a certain cultural cachet that Utahns love. When I asked Larson about how she came to love Austen and why she thinks her “Pride and Prejudice” has done so well, she replied, “I love Austen. I came to her later. I wasn’t one of those people who was reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in high school, but I also wasn’t doing drama in high school. I feel like she is a woman’s writer in the best possible way. I think she tells really fabulous, important and urgent women’s stories. I don’t think people think about her that way. I think people call her chick lit like that’s a bad thing and they say it very dismissively.”

“But,” Larson added, “she’s never gone out of print. And there has to be a reason for that.”

Larson articulated how being Filipino American has influenced her adaptation and her hopes for the future.

“I think another thing that makes Austen very attractive is that it’s very accessible and she’s been around so long that she belongs to everyone. I have a dream of seeing this show with a BIPOC cast,” she said. “My hope is that the text of the play is strong enough that other groups will want to do it.”

When theaters do her work, Larson said she encourages them to “consider a cast that is more diverse.” She explained, “And I don’t mean just ethnicity. Ethnicity, yes, but also we need to start thinking about theaters in general, to have a cast with lots of different body shapes and body sizes. And that’s something that Hollywood just kind of denies. ... It’s not a real, honest portrayal.”

Adapting the play for a modern, contemporary audience requires a lot of work. Larson said that when she began the process, she had to think about how to translate Austen to a modern audience in an accessible way, but also how to portray the novel to people who haven’t read the book.

She said that adaptation requires her to think about how to balance a message with good storytelling. “You can have a message and an agenda, and sometimes that’s very important to you,” she said. “But sometimes that can get in the way of the story being just a good story.”

Larson said she came across this when she was working on “Jane and Emma,” explaining that “we really had to balance it with good storytelling, otherwise it just feels preachy.”

When I asked her why audiences should see the show, she said, “The play has some really great moments where because of the form, I’m able to tell some parts of the story that are only hinted at in the book. That’s satisfying to fans of the book.”

Review of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

After talking to Larson about the adaptation, I went to watch the play on two different occasions — once for an initial review and a second time when, incidentally, a friend had bought a pair of tickets and asked me to go with her at the last minute.

By far, the best part of the play was how the different characters became robust persons on the stage. Larson built all of the main characters out in the play and the banter between them that doesn’t appear in the novel was absolutely enchanting. The play itself is both humorous and romantic.

The placement of the jokes is artful — in some ways, the jokes drive the dialogue in a creative way that’s difficult to describe. The play simultaneously felt long and short — it flew by as my attention was captured, but it also felt long in the sense that I felt like the Bennet sisters in particular became whole people throughout the course of the play, whereas in film adaptations, I had noticed that they remained flat.

While walking out of the theater, I asked a few different people what they thought about the play and they all had high praise for it. One person in a particular was a woman who told me that she moved to Utah from a suburb of New York City and often missed having Broadway right by her home. She said that Larson’s play reminded her why she loved going to the theater and that the experience had encouraged her to attend more productions.

It did the same for me, too.

“Pride and Prejudice” is running at the Hale Center Theater in Orem through Feb. 11.