The magic of Jane Austen brought a gift to Pittsburgh this month with the staging of Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley by City Theatre.
A reunion of (most of) the Bennett sisters for the holidays- at Pemberley no less – was just what this Jane Austen fan wanted. Miss Bennett is part of a holiday trilogy each focused on the “other” sisters in our beloved novels. This story shines a light on the somewhat more grownup middle sister, Mary Bennett, through the details of a love story. Mary’s unexpected lover is new to the canvas, but has lots of ties to legacy characters – Arthur du Bourgh inherits Rosings Estate after the indomitable Lady Catherine dies.
Arthur is the son of the late Sir du Bourgh’s brother. He inherited the estate, but remains woefully unprepared for what that entails. Even turning up to Pemberley for the holidays without realizing he was expected at Rosings. Arthur had previously inherited a title from his late father so he’s the real deal in Austen’s world.
Mary arrives at Pemberley with Charles and Jane Bingley who is very pregnant with her firstborn. Mary is usually lost in the shuffle of affectionate reunions and discussions of housekeeping among the familiar foursome. Quickly we realize that Mary has matured, more like her sister Lizzie than anyone else, a curious mind, a quick word to share, and increasing realization that she wants more than to be spinster Mary, she wants a choice.
Arthur and Mary a match made in literature – both are handsome, intelligent, and modest. But where Mary was forced to sink or swim with her sisters, Arthur’s only child status leaves him unprepared for life outside of the studyroom.
The first act features the introductions, the less-than-triumphant return of Lydia Wickham, updates assorted other characters, and a stage overflowing with festivity. Including a frequently commented upon Christmas tree, a tradition Lizzie is determined to adopt from German culture.
Arthur and Mary meet, acknowledge their shared interests, and begin the metaphorical dance. Two familiar distractions cause problems – Lydia is lonely and flirts with Arthur to soothe her ego, then cousin Anne de Bourgh appears from Rosings to shore up her status by affiancing herself to Arthur. Mixed messages and quick wits abound. Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley seem to understand that Arthur lacks the male companionship that helped to shape their own romances, but quickly hand off matchmaking duties to the women.
The love stories are charming as always, but the real story are the relationships among the women – the Bennet sisters, Anne du Bourgh, even the off-screen Georgiana Darcy. When Lydia becomes aware that her flirtations had hurt her sister, her maturing showed as she took responsibility for her behavior and spun quickly into protective mode to support Mary. As Elizabeth and Jane help Anne navigate her own situation, their encouragement that she could create her own life shifts her attitude, albeit late in the play.
I also liked how Lizzie and Jane gently moved into the wings to allow their younger sisters to shine.
The play was quite satisfying both as a return to Pride & Prejudice and as holiday fare. The crowd of mostly women were all, including me, leaning forward to catch the quick wordplay,
The case was all local and regional. They did a fine job. Alex Sheffield as Lydia Wickham was a scene staler as was Leyla Davis as Anne du Bourgh. Michael Patrick Trimm as Arthur was on fire and created a character quite worth the Austen genre. The large cast meant no servants, no Georgiana Darcy (???), and the most unfortunate missed opportunity of Arthur du Bourgh meeting Mr. Collins for the first time.
The set was the parlor at Darcy that also doubled as a library and gathering space for men. It worked, but it was a bit odd. Jane Bennett Bingley was very pregnant but there was no real reason for us to know that. Props had Jane carrying about this odd little ceramic dish, suggesting she was always eating. But what? And why? It was a bit of a distraction. Putting Bingley into a dual role as a manservant would have made sense.
Another distraction was the pianoforte where Mary had gained quite a degree of proficiency. Alas, the disconnect between her keyboarding and the very lively Beethoven music was also distracting. I tried hard to suspend belief, but it was a struggle. The larger soundscape was as my companion put it, “very Bridgerton”, orchestral covers of pop songs. I’d like to listen to that playlist.
The piece de resistance is the large green spruce tree Lizzie had installed in the parlor to celebrate the season. Everyone commented upon it. This also required some literary license in that the expansion of the so-called Germanic culture of Christmas trees was a little later in time than 1815. I was also pretty certain that the Austen Mr. Darcy would not approve, would tolerate for his wife’s sake perhaps. I anticipated more eyerolling from him about the tree.
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was perhaps the biggest stretch. He was too silly for my taste. The performance was good, but the writing not so much. Whereas the Bennett sisters growth seemed fitting for their maturity, Darcy was unfamiliar. Mr. Bingley was ridiculous. Both characters needed something serious to do beyond attempting miserably to matchmake for Arthur du Bourgh.
I’m glad Mary met her match, but I have to smile at the Bennett sisters leapfrogginng over one another to richer and richer husbands – first, Jane marries Bingley, then Lizzie marries the more affluent Darcy, and now Mary married du Bourgh who has a title, an estate, and two fortunes. Lydia was the first to marry and languishes in unhappy genteel poverty. So what is left for Kitty? We’ve exhausted all of the single men with fortunes! Mrs. Bennett is probably going to be comatose from wedding delirium if she finds a royal suitor.
Overall, this play was quite good. The wordplay, the satisfaction of carrying forward Jane Austen’s true themes, the gorgeous stage and lush soundtrack. All worked together to draw me into that special Christmas space of Pemberley. And I’m looking forward to seeing some of the newer actors in future productions.
I hope City Theatre does us the great service of bringing the rest of the trilogy in future years.
You won’t regret spending time at Pemberley this holiday season. Like I, you might commit to curl up with the BBC production (the best) of Pride and Prejudice. Or the book!
The play continues through December 17 with a range of ticket options.
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