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Review: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley 

Southern Rep presents a lighthearted sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

click to enlarge miss_bennet-1939.jpg

Photo by John Barrois

Between 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 very 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 to enjoy the play, 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. Elizabeth (Shelley Johnson) and Bennet sister Jane Bingley (Annie Cleveland) and her husband Charles Bingley (James Bartelle) watch from across the parlor, reluctant to intervene. Matters get more complicated with the arrival of Anne de Bourgh (Monica 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 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 out 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 men's 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 aren't likely to be disappointed with the characters, and those in search of holiday cheer can find it. The show is not very surprising, but a welcome holiday gift.

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