Review: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a lighthearted comedy using the characters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS
  • PHOTO BY JOHN BARROIS
  • Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a lighthearted comedy using the characters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Inbetween scenes of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, the maid (Erin Sheets) at Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Pemberley estate doubles as a sign carrier, presenting the audience with brief notes, such as “Transition,” in a flowery script surrounded by glossy images of garlands. The signs look like labels on holiday fruitcakes or plastic-wrapped gift baskets, and I don’t know if the sign bit is included in the script of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s comedic sequel to Pride and Prejudice, but it’s a tipoff to the lighthearted, easy humor in the holiday drama.

Southern Rep’s production is full of competent acting, though it’s not applied to a terribly involved story. The drama is set at the estate of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennet) two years after the end of Jane Austen’s novel. Elizabeth has embraced the spreading German tradition of installing a Christmas tree inside the home, and all the Brits who enter make the same joke of surprise about the unfamiliar custom.

The story focuses on Mary Bennet (Helen Jaksch), the bookish middle sister from Pride and Prejudice. Here she’s erudite, though much more sympathetic than in the novel. She’s battling her times, concerned that her unabashed love of books will keep her from a happy marriage if she lands a husband at all. Enter Arthur de Bourgh (Ian Hoch), who also loves reading about science and poring over maps. Though he’s inherited an estate, he seems lost and quickly yields to social pressure.

Audiences need not be familiar with Pride and Prejudice, though some punch lines are richer or more ironic for those familiar with events in the novel.

Mary and Arthur’s flirtation through books would be simple except for the interference of Mary’s sister Lydia, who is flighty and persistent. Bennet sister Jane Bingley (Annie Cleveland) and her husband Charles Bingley (James Bartelle) and Elizabeth (Shelley Johnson) watch from across the parlor, reluctant to intervene. Matters get more complicated with the arrival of Anne de Bourgh (Monica R. Harris).

Jaksch is forceful as Mary, making her brim with confidence and an urgency that carries most of the story’s emotional weight. Hoch, who in the last year has starred as Don Quixote and Caligula, manages to make de Bourgh’s indecision comic instead of dreary. Bartelle infuses Charles with vigor and humor, and his comedic timing is excellent.

David Raphel’s set literally is towering, with high bookshelves and a grand arch over an entrance, suggesting Pemberley is larger than the Marquette Theater stage. Not all furnishings are as ornate as the piano on which Mary pounds Beethoven, and the overall scheme doesn’t suggest a wealth of taste or consistency among the Darcys. Some of the costumes are similarly incongruous, with the sisters’ gowns and mens coats in bright spring colors. Lydia sometimes wears bright orange and Elizabeth is decked in shimmery blue-green. They look like Empire-waisted Easter eggs.

Austen fans are not likely to be disappointed with the characters, and those in search of holiday cheer can find it. The show is a not very surprising but welcome holiday gift.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Dec. 7-23
7:30 p.m. Thu.–Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.
Loyola University, Marquette Theatre, 6363 St. Charles Ave., (504) 522-6545
Tickets $8-$40


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