By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
There are many Jane Austen fans who can recite chapter and verse as to what motivated the many characters from “Pride and Prejudice” at any particular juncture. It would seem that playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon are among her diehard fans too because their recent sequel to the stage adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” is nothing less than a holiday gift all wrapped up with beautiful red and green ribbons for trim.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley takes up after Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and his beloved Elizabeth (“Lizzy”) have wed and are establishing their new home at Pemberley. Elizabeth (Shelley Johnson) is adament that she will start her own family tradition and elects to cut down an evergreen – a spruce – as is the custom of German families in order to celebrate the Christmas season. Her husband (Michael Newcomer) is confused at the idea of bringing a tree indoors, but his love dictates he will keep an open mind.
With one notable exception, all of the sisters have married including Lydia Wickham (Emily Russell) and a very pregnant Jane Bingley (Annie Cleveland). Lydia’s military husband is apparently off engaging the enemy and other women, much to her dissatisfaction, but she will be the last person to acknowledge that or indicate that her marriage is failing in any way.
As to that lone unmarried exception, it is none other than plain, but outspoken Mary Bennet (Helen Jaksch), a progressive thinking woman who is not only literate, but also classically trained to play the pianoforte. She excels in channeling Beethoven, but also in speaking her mind freely. This makes the possibility she may find a suitor as highly unlikely. Most men of the early 19th century would find such a match as distasteful and challenging to say the least.
As any Austen fan can attest, male heirs at that time were given advantage over females of the day and so when Anne de Bourgh’s mother, Lady Catherine suddenly passes away, the Rossings Way estate passes to a nephew, Arthur de Bourgh (Ian Hoch). Arthur is a bookish milquestoast of an Oxford student, whose father died years earlier. Uncomfortable with his new title, he heads not to Rossings Way, but instead to Pemberley, where he has the prospect of having a warm and welcoming Christmas holiday. Unknown to him, Anne (Monica Harris), whom “Pride and Prejudice” fans will recall was jilted when Mr. Darcy declared his love for Elizabeth, looks to secure a future with her first cousin, as her mother had hoped. But when he fails to show up at Rossings Way, she sets off to find him.
Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy and his brother-in-law Charles Bingley (James Bartelle) have welcomed Arthur to Pemberley, where he meets and becomes enchanted with Miss Bennet. The remainder of the plot deals with a series of misadventures which are designed to keep Mary and Arthur out of each other’s arms.
Co-directed by Aimée Hayes and Jeffrey Gunshol, this relatively new work was penned in 2015. Gunderson, who is the most produced living playwright in the country today, does not fail to deliver a tautly-woven tale that moves along with some predictability with Melcon. They breathe fresh life into these beloved characters in a way that makes them accessible. The dialog and the transition scenes are a delight of instrumental holiday music choreographed as cast members add or remove props and stage furniture. Gunshol’s previous work as a choreographer definitely adds to the mix.
Kudos to assistant director Erin Sheets for her enchanting, but non-speaking role as the maid of the house. Her character is used effectively during the transition scenes as well.
As the titular character, Jaksch is entirely charming. We can almost see the gears whirring in her head as she recognizes her attraction to the timid Mr. DeBourgh. A dramaturg who has enjoyed limited work on stage, Jaksch is an actor who gets the character’s motivation down right. Although she does not entirely play the pianoforte constructed by scenic designer David Raphel, her hand placement makes it appear that she is a virtuoso.
Hoch also commands much of the attention of the play as Arthur DeBourgh. The object of attention by the frustrated Lydia as well as by his designing cousin Anne, he is beset by a series of misunderstandings that literally drive him to distraction even when he realizes he is attracted to Mary. Hoch, who was recently seen as the lead of Caligula in the Cripple Creek Production of the same name, gets an opportunity to try out his comedic legs in a way that is somewhat similar to his performance in The NOLA Project’s and Southern Rep’s Flood City last year.
Excellent work is turned in by Bartelle and Harris in subsidiary, but important roles within the work. Cleveland’s role as the pregnant Jane and Russell’s as the ambitious Mrs. Wickham are two other reasons why this play works so well.
As Lizzy, Johnson is also quite forthright in her work with Newcomer as they work on their young marriage and she takes on the duties of head of the Pemberley household. Johnson, who has not been seen on the local stage in some time, is a welcome addition to this Southern Rep production. Sound design by Brendan Connelly is outstanding and the costumes by Cecile Casey Covert are quite splendid and add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the work.
This new work could very well be a recurring treat to be seen at holiday time each year. If that is the case, it will be very difficult to rise to the same level as this Southern Rep production.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues its run at the Marquette Theatre of Loyola University now through December 23. Shows are held on Friday and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. with a final matinee today at 3:00 p.m. For more information call