It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the Bennet sisters are gathering at Pemberley to celebrate.
Novelist Jane Austen’s darlings are all married and taking their places among the upper echelons of society — except middle sister Mary (Amelia Fischer). Bookish and high-strung, Mary would rather spend her time mastering a Beethoven concerto than swooning over a man. But when Arthur de Bourgh (Jonathan Horne), a single, newly appointed lord and science scholar, arrives at Pemberley, these two nerds bond over a love of maps and conversations about moral philosophy. Youngest sister Lydia (Devon Hales) has her own plans for Mr. de Bourgh, but when the letter she slips into his book lands in the wrong hands, a series of farcical mishaps erupt, much in the style of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
Completely out of sorts and totally smitten, these two bookworms must learn that there is no order or logic when it comes to love.
Theatrical Outfit’s production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” transports the audience back to a time when everything was trimmed in lace, and bringing a tree indoors and decorating it was an unusual tradition. Inspired by “Pride & Prejudice,” this sequel, written by Atlanta native Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, finds the Bennet sisters a few years after the novel’s conclusion. Lizzy (Julissa Sabino) and Mr. Darcy (Lee Osorio) are nesting at Pemberley. Jane (Maria Rodriguez-Sager) and Bingley (Juan Carlos Unzueta) are expecting their first baby. Lydia is spending Lord Wickham’s money to avoid dealing with his absence as he travels. And Mary is filling her mind with facts to avoid filling her heart with feelings. Kitty never makes an appearance in “Miss Pemberley,” and Gunderson and Melcon handle that potential plot hole with comedic prowess.
Though the play is set in 1815, this comedy of manners feels both contemporary and appropriate for the time period. True to form, Gunderson delves into social convention and weaves in feminist undertones with sarcasm and wit. In a scene where Arthur is complaining about how the duties of being a lord have taken him away from his studies at Oxford, Mary chides him, explaining that as a man of means, he has all of the choices in the world. The idea of marriage for love versus marriage for money is relatively new at this time, and there is a genuine fear among society women about what will happen to them if a man does not marry them.
Carolyn Cook directs a strong ensemble with impeccable comedic timing. Hales is a welcome burst of energy as rosy-cheeked, loudmouth Lydia, and Rodriguez-Sager’s Jane shows the actress in rare form with a light and fluttering affectation in her voice and an amusing waddle as she eats for two. The chemistry between Horne as de Bourgh and Fischer as Mary is delightfully awkward to watch. When Bingley and Jane talk about the extraordinary nature of bringing a child into the world, Arthur and Mary go on to offer statistics of how many children are born every day and how ordinary childbirth really is.
In another scene, Lydia tries to lure Arthur under the mistletoe, and he says, “You shocked me with your flora,” and goes on to explain the poisonous properties of the plant. The play really shines in the quips exchanged between the men when they offer each other counsel about courtship and fatherhood. When Bingley is anxiously asking what he should do to be of more use before the baby is born, Darcy says, “We are gentlemen, Bingley. We sit. We wait for the excitement to come to us.”
Kudos are well-deserved for set designer Seamus M. Bourne, who decks the drawing room at Pemberley with books from floor to ceiling and beautiful turquoise furniture. The set is enhanced by lighting designer Alex Riviere’s impressive creation of frost on the windows using blue and white light. Costume designer Elizabeth Rasmusson dresses the entire cast sharply with the piece de resistance a long purple velvet coat trimmed with black fur worn by Arthur’s cousin, Miss Anne de Bourgh (Galen Crawley).
Gunderson and Melcon have written a nice new addition to the usual holiday show fare. They have done a nice job balancing farce with meaningful conversations where everyone, the sisters especially, questions whether the lives they have chosen are the ones for which they had hoped. The Theatrical Outfit production doesn’t miss a detail, right down to the set crew dressed like staff at the estate. “Miss Bennet” is likely soon to be a holiday classic.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”
Through Dec. 24. $20-$50. Theatrical Outfit, Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org. There will be a post-show dialogue after the matinee performance on Dec. 9 and a show-and-tell with the design team on Dec. 15.
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