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The studious and curt Mary Bennet, the middle of five sisters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, receives some holiday joy in the Rep’s current offering of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. A fairly maligned Bennet sister, Mary is spending the holidays with her sister and brother-in-law (Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy) when Arthur de Bourgh, a distant relative of Darcy’s, comes to celebrate as well, and a socially challenged couple stumbles to find love. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, directed by Jenn Thompson, running December 1-24 on the Virginia Jackson Browning Mainstage at the Loretto Hilton Center for the Performing Arts.
It begins with Mary, played with fierce determination by Justine Salata, at the piano in her sister Elizabeth’s house. It’s been two years since the Lizzie/Darcy romance played out and Mary has done some maturing. Most of the Bennet clan is coming to the Darcy’s Pemberley estate to celebrate Christmas and the spirit of the holidays is in full swing. Elizabeth and Darcy, (Harveen Sandhu and Rhett Guter) are the sweet and spicy couple of Pride and Prejudice but with more confidence and freedom in their relationship. Jane and Mr. Bingley, (Kim Wong and Peterson Townsend) join the family with Jane about to burst from pregnancy.
Like the Austen play, Miss Bennet take a little bit to warm up, introducing characters slowly and giving the audience a view of character’s quirks and peculiarities before offering us another. The three sisters get a chance to reconnect and settle into new parameters when Lydia Wickham, the fourth sister, played effervescently by Austen Danielle Bohmer, alights into the room, changing the sibling dynamic once again. But the audience is waiting for the arrival of the distant cousin and Miles G. Jackson, playing Lord Arthur de Bourgh, doesn’t disappoint. His social ineptitude is on full display to a house full of women: physically gangly and vocally adolescent, with bows too deep and uncertainty about nearly anything and everything regarding the social mores, he is a confessed bookworm and avid student of the world, nearly a perfect match for Mary.
The couple has their obstacles in this bumpy romance. Aside from the social stressors, sister Lydia gets caught in the mix and ultimately, the unannounced arrival of Miss Anne de Bourgh, played icily by Victoria Frings, who declares she is the fiancé of Arthur, puts the final kibosh on a budding romance.
Overall, the cast is excellent. Ms. Salata’s Mary is the determined backbone of the show. Finally, Mary gets a chance to shine, to be heard, and to experience a moment in the spotlight. It’s refreshing to hear a woman speak her mind with such unapologetic certainty, both then and now.
I’ve always thought Jane was a bit underwritten, even in P & P, and Miss Bennet doesn’t move her story along at all with the exception of her pregnancy. All the Austen characters retain their personalities and wit, especially Elizabeth and Lydia, and, like the insanely charming, if-a-bit-dense Darcy, the audience loves Miles G. Jackson’s Arthur. They want him to succeed so badly with Mary, to overcome his social inequities, you can almost feel the audience leaning into him to give him support. The audience recognizes his brand of sweet-smart is the perfect complement to the acerbic-smart of Mary.
Ms. Bohmer’s Lydia was an audience favorite as the loud, brassy sister with a keen taste for hi-jinks. Victoria Frings rigid Anne de Bourgh is a perfect foil for her cousin Arthur. She commands the room with her presence and her voice and is the one character who P&P fans will find changed: in Miss Bennet, she is definitely not sickly and weak. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon retain the Austen-like elements of smart and crackling dialogue, fully explored characters, and most importantly, the sharp look at the injustices and inequities of society. The moment in Miss Bennet when the audience hears three completely different perspectives on one situation is a reminder, in today’s deeply divided country, that what is true for one is not true for all, and each is simply trying to make things better.
Director Jenn Thompson keeps Miss Bennet moving along briskly. The production includes some lovely transition music for scene changes – festive and light and perfect for the holidays, thanks to Sound Designer Toby Jaguar Algya. The set for Miss Bennet establishes the tone for this little gem of a play. Scenic Designer Wilson Chin, creates an exquisite interior drawing room at Pemberley (called the “tree room” a couple of times), giving us three chandeliers and four huge windows to watch the light, (beautifully designed by Philip S. Rosenberg), a wall of ridiculously high bookshelves, and numerous settees and fainting couches. The rich, red velvet curtains and furniture are the essence of a beautifully appointed room.
The costumes, designed by David Toser, kept the Bennet family personalities intact: Mary’s dresses were simple, straightforward, and serviceable, moving toward spinster until the end of the show; Elizabeth had layers like her personality; Jane’s dresses were bright and sunny; Lydia’s clothing flirty and coquettish. Mr. Toser gave Arthur distinction putting him in long pants and coat, as opposed to the opulent and hearty dress of Darcy and Bingham. The cast occasionally stumbles over the dialect, (coaching by Joanna Battles) with a mismatch of pronunciations of “been,” “again,” and “understand,” but generally holds the British RP very well throughout the evening. The ensemble of Max Bahneman, Johnny Briseno, and Molly Burris as Pemberly servants move through the set effortlessly, placing and removing props and decorations, as silently as mice.
Add Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley to your holiday calendar for a witty and charming night of theatre. The production, sponsored by Emerson, runs through December 24 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Tickets can be purchased online at repstl.org, or by calling the Box Office at 314-968-4925, or by visiting the Loretto-Hilton Center at 130 Edgar Road (on the campus of Webster University) from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. Ticket costs range from $18.50 – $89.