A MARY CHRISTMAS
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” brings family together with a pinch of love and a dash of the season
All photos by Dan Norman.
By Lianna Matt
Nothing says a holiday play like family, love, transformation and, for American audiences, a Christmas tree. At least according to playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, who created the play, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” in 2016. You can decide for yourself at Jungle Theater in Uptown, Nov. 18-Dec. 30.
“Miss Bennet” takes place two years after Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and this time it’s about the middle sister, Mary. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are hosting the family at Pemberley including Mary, who fills her days at Longbourne with her books and pianoforte. Mary looks on the impending family reunion with dread, but it goes better than expected when she meets Arthur de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s cousin who shares her joy in reading about microbiology, geography and LeMarc’s giraffes. However, she’s not the only one interested in Mr. de Bourgh. He is the newfound heir of the huge Rosings estate, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in a possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife. Or rather, there are many women are in want of the single man.
Mary Bennet, whom Christian Bardin plays as overly literal and charmingly inexperienced, often feels overlooked by her sisters but is never overlooked by the audience. She has the witty comments that “Pride and Prejudice” lovers might have thought Elizabeth would have spoken, and she has the innocent plight of first love. Bardin toughs out conversations that delve too deep too fast with a steady performance, and her piano playing serves as both a testament to Mary’s skill and at times, to her humor. Yes, this play is a love story between her and the straightforward, likable and nerdy Arthur (JuCoby Johnson), but it is more so a reintroduction of who Mary Bennet really is.
The script of “Miss Bennet” is certainly set up to make the middle sister shine, yet Jungle Theater’s well-matched supporting cast keeps the bar high across the board. For instance, the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, was as flamboyant and indiscreet as you could ever want thanks to Kelsey Didion, and Jane Bennet was perfectly cast in voice and presence through the sweet-tempered Adia Morris. All benefit from the wardrobe colors that set and costume designer Sarah Bahr chose for them, too.
One of the few confusing parts of the story was the timeline. With short scenes based on conversations and multiple singing interludes mostly by Darcy's servants Becca Hart and Guillermo Rodriguez Zermeño, it suggested the Bennet visit to Pemberley was a couple of weeks, not the two or so days that seemed to be referenced in dialogue. I prefer to pretend it’s a matter of weeks; certainly Elizabeth and Jane know that true love can take a long and winding road.
Although the exposition was a little heavy-handed at the beginning, it made it easy for those who didn’t know “Pride and Prejudice” at all to enjoy this world of sisterhood, romance and comedy. The plot was focused in dialogue, a natural extension of Austen’s world, but the talk of women’s agency was more frank. Mary has a self-professed temper in this play, but it comes across more as a frustration: She does not feel like her life has opportunity, and she cannot stand to watch those who do squander it. The contrast of her iron conviction and her sometimes victimized language makes the audience see how women of lesser means had to compromise their identities to fit within society.
Criticisms of women’s place in society slip in and out of the plot of “Miss Bennet,” but like its predecessor, they easily blend into the everyday family trifles, blossoming romance and happy endings. While not steeped in too many holiday cliches, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a delight with a literally picture-perfect ending.
For more holiday theater shows, check out our regional theater roundup and our roundup focused exclusively on the Twin Cities' largest stages.