Camille Cettina can certainly make 80 minutes fly by. With her sprightly storytelling, impish impersonations, literal leaps and bounds around the room, and coy curlings-up in an armchair, the self-confessed “avid reader” reveals a rich private fantasy world, peopled by various book characters. She re-enacts a two-dimensional tale from her first literary love, Nancy Drew, with childlike exuberance, hopping back and forth and changing voices to play all the parts. But as the scene tapers to a satisfying conclusion, Cettina holds up the book and reproaches it: “I just can’t live in your black-and-white world, where all swarthy men are bad and all girls in a simple cotton dress are victims. I feel like we’re growing apart.”

As she abandons Nancy in search of titillating new territories (VC Andrews’ tween soap-opera smut, a full-on romance novel that teaches her the word “libido,”) we understand that we’re about to watch a bookworm blossom into a butterfly.

She soon finds the perfect food for her growing intellectual and romantic curiosity: the Jane Austen canon (specifically Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre). Both the play’s namesake, Mr. Darcy, and Jane ’s antihero, Mr. Rochester, imbue the young reader with unrealistic romantic expectations: Darcy, who first seems distant, turns out to be preternaturally noble and devoted. Rochester, who hides his ex wife in the attic, is also eventually revealed to be noble, tortured, and capable of boundless loyalty and love. While she winks at the far-fetched scenarios, she also admits to absorbing them.

“Books get a little bit dangerous,” she confides. “You imagine a Darcy finding you.”

Hinting that her Austen-inspired desires are often dashed on the hard realities of life’s limitations, Cettina assumes a more troubled muse, Salinger’s Franny from Franny & Zooey. Staring spacily from her now comfortless armchair, she gradually unravels into a nervous breakdown. (Or Franny does. Right?) This is the part of the play where, as they’d say in hiphop, “sh* gets real.” Slumping to the floor, hoarsely murmuring the mantra, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” Cettina plunges us past whimsy into the disillusionment that idealists know all too well. Mr. Darcy isn’t coming to save you, because Mr. Darcy doesn’t exist.

Climbing the side of her towering bookshelf like King Kong on a skyscraper, knocking books around in a hail of righteous rage, Cettina destroys part of her universe—then gradually retracts her freak flag back into a more comforting nook of cuteness. Closing with a monologue about her love of reading that essentially echoes her intro, Cettina effectively book-ends her performance in pro-literacy platitudes. But as with a book, it’s the stuff in the middle that matters—the shifting and fragile material that curls and crumples between the sturdy covers. In this show, and the persona of Camille herself, that ephemera remains “extremely loud and incredibly close.”

Pushleg Theater’s Mr. Darcy Dreamboat continues at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center through November 20. For more about Portland arts events, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, or sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter!