Chicago Theatre Review
A Truth Universally Acknowledged
Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley – Northlight Theatre
In 1813, Pride and Prejudice was published. It was English author Jane Austen’s second and most popular novel, preceded by the writer’s well-received Sense and Sensibility. It tells the story of a middle class family whose five daughters are all in the market for suitable, preferably wealthy, husbands. By the end of this wise, romantic novel, only Mary Bennet, the bookish and music-loving middle sister of Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty and Lydia remains unmarried. This new play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon is a sequel to the original novel. It’s set two years later, around 1815, during Christmastime at Pemberley, the opulent mansion of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. The playwrights tell the continuing story of the often overlooked and frequently misunderstood Mary Bennet. Their comedy, which is having its welcome world premiere in Chicago, details how Mary, at long last, unexpectedly finds her soulmate and discovers true love.
This romantic story, seasoned with early nineteenth century holiday traditions, is told with a touch of Regency feminism. It should be remembered that this movement was only in its infancy during this time, but women, thanks to writers like Jane Austen, were beginning to have their own voice. As the play opens, four of the five Bennet women have married, but are already exerting their independence over the men in their lives. Lizzy, for instance, decides to initiate an unusual new custom in their holiday decorating with the inclusion of a Christmas tree. Jane, pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment, makes the decision to invite Lydia, her frivolous younger sister, to come stay with her to help with the baby, without first consulting her husband, Mr. Bingley. Even Lydia herself, who excitedly accepts Jane’s invitation, has decided that what’s good for the gander is good for the goose, in response to the wild behavior of Mr. Wickham, her philandering husband. However, Mary, the family loner and intellectual, has always found comfort in remaining independent. Lately, though, she’s begun to feel that too much personal freedom also breeds loneliness. She observes, in her sisters’ situations, the pleasures of having someone with whom to share thoughts, ideas, plans and love.
So when Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy invite the entire Bennet family to Pemberley for the holidays, Mary initially falls into her accustomed role of providing the musical and literary entertainment for everyone. But, upon observing the happiness of the couples surrounding her, Mary secretly begins to long for the same. Then two unexpected guests arrive. First, young, scholarly Lord Arthur de Bourgh, who’s spent his formative years studying at Oxford, accepts Mr. Darcy’s invitation for a Christmas visit. Although it takes Mary and Arthur a while to acknowledge it, everyone at Pemberley can see that these two kindred spirits are meant for each other. They both love books, science and find adventure in maps, but neither possesses an interest in social frivolity.
Complications soon arise that prevent these two kids from getting together. First, Lydia returns to her old ways and begins flirting shamelessly with Arthur, resulting in a series of misdirected letters of affection. Then, when another unexpected visitor arrives, romance flies out the door. Miss Anne de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s cousin, unexpectedly shows up at Pemberley. She presumes, because her late mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, said it was so, that Arthur is engaged to marry her. The obstinate Miss de Burgh refuses to relent or take no for an answer, and soon the holidays lose festivity for Mary and Arthur.
Set within the Darcy’s sumptuous 1815 Pemberley drawing room, beautifully designed with detail by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, director Jessica Thebus has guided her production with elegance, energy and playfulness. She mines every ounce of wit and intelligence from Jane Austen’s iconic characters, truly focusing on the strength of her women in this very female-centric play. In Ms. Thebus’ production the men carry the load as the supporting players, as well they should in an Austen-inspired story. She cleverly orchestrates a series of fast-moving, shadowy interludes, during which props are struck or costumes are changed, as if time’s quickly passing between the more important dialogue scenes. The production is lovingly costumed by Melissa Torchia. Her gorgeous gowns and well-tailored menswear, which include several costume changes, are period perfect and as alluring as can be. The production is beautifully illuminated by Sarah Hughey and heightened by Kevin O’Donnell’s authentic, original music and sound design.
Emily Berman takes the lead in this production, making her auspicious Northlight debut as Mary Bennet. She’s magnificent at playing the drab, discriminating yet discounted middle daughter, who yearns for more than her life has provided. Ms. Berman’s beauty is hidden beneath her frumpy and less fashionable costumes, highlighted by her Pince-nez eyewear and loose, unraveled curls. The actress is matched by the talented Erik Hellman as a boyish Arthur de Bourgh. This twosome make an enjoyably winning duo whom audiences not only love but cheer on in their journey toward romance. The pair trade book titles and similar ideas, while sharing their discomfort with this kind of social situation. Together they become a sweetly charming couple, worthy of Jane Austen’s imagination.
Fresh from her recent triumph as Ruth in the Goodman’s “Wonderful Town,” Bri Sudia is a force of nature as Anne de Bourgh. A deliciously pompous powerhouse, Ms. Sudia insinuates her way through this story with confidence and courageousness. She blows into Pemberley, with the force of a bitter winter wind, taking control and demanding her way. Anne begins the play as an unpleasant harpy who, in any other story, would be served her just desserts. However, in this delightful comedy, Miss de Bough’s ultimately conquered with kindness that completely changes her. Recalling her mother from the novel, the haughty Catherine de Bourgh, we can observe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Samantha Beach and Aila Peck are lovely as Elizabeth and Jane, Mary’s older, married sisters. Both look stunning in their period gowns and sound precisely like they just stepped out of Austen’s novel. Jennifer Latimore kicks off her Chicago theatrical career with style as the frivolous, flirtatious Lydia. This radiant young actress brims with enthusiasm and clarity. Creating the perfect classy coquette, Ms. Latimore brings humor and an air of giddiness to this comedy.
Always marvelous and naturally funny in any role he undertakes, Alex Goodrich is delightful as Mr. Darcy. Tall, handsome, clever and experienced, Mr. Goodrich plays Darcy with a bit of stuffiness and a wry sense of humor. He plays well off both Ms. Beach and Tosin Morohunfola (so masterful in Northlight’s recent “Butler”), as the continually befuddled, but charming Mr. Bingley. He plays his character as a kind, polite and easily influenced gentleman. Both share their finest scene with Hellman, as they advise Arthur how to talk to women through cleverly written correspondence. Summer Hofford and Roberto Jonson are warm and winsome as the Darcy’s household staff. Their primary function is to collect coats and bonnets, deliver new props to the stage and keep the play moving. Secretly, however, they’re lovers who exchange a wink, a meaningful glance or a stolen kiss whenever possible.
This well-crafted sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice captures all the whimsical and witty characters of the original story. It also provides audiences, especially fans of the novel, with a new, long-awaited adventure with the Bennet sisters. Filled with effusive, flowery dialogue and all the elegance and opulence the novel offers, this play is a welcomed return to Regency England, where feminist thought was just beginning to emerge. Jessica Thebus’ bright and exuberant production emphasizes this. It’s lavish and polished and creates a perfect alternative to Chicago’s holiday fare, sans dancing Nutcrackers, Ghosts of the past, flying reindeer or an angel named Clarence. It is a truth universally acknowledged that all we need to remind us that it’s the holidays, at least in this wonderful play, is family, friends and a towering Christmas tree.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 10-December 18 by Northlight Theatre, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.