Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice” sisters are back in Southern Rep’s snappy production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” robustly directed by Aimee Hayes and Jeffrey Gunshol.
Gifted playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon begin their “sequel” at Christmastime, two years after the conclusion of the novel.
Elizabeth (Shelly Johnson) and Darcy (Michael Newcomer), now happily married, are hosting a family gathering including Charles Bingley (James Bartelle) and his quite-pregnant wife, Jane (Annie Cleveland); Lydia (Emily Russell) the uncontrollably flirtatious youngest sister; and the bookish, off-key singing middle sister Mary (Helen Jaksch) whose presence in the novel is scant at best. Kitty, for some reason, has been dispatched to London.
A surprise guest is Arthur de Bourgh (Ian Hoch), a wonderful original creation by Gunderson and Melcon. The loathed Lady Catherine de Bourgh has passed away, leaving her estate to the hopelessly underprepared Arthur.
Almost immediately sparks fly between Mary and Arthur, equally socially inept. Their eventual pairing is predictably inevitable. The pleasure is not if, but how these awkward birds-of-a-feather will overcome the customary obstacles.
When Arthur’s commanding, narcissistic distant-cousin Anne de Bourgh (Monica Harris) bursts on the scene claiming Arthur as her fiancé, comic complications ensue.
A few insider laughs emanated from a pleased opening night audience, but an awareness of the book is not essential for enjoyment of this amusing trifle.
The script maintains Austen’s literate, witty spirit but the dialogue is more friendly than her Regency-era language.
The playwrights take full advantage in adapting these mischievous women for modern feminist sensibilities. The men are largely idle — “We are gentlemen” says Darcy. “We sit. And wait for the excitement to come to us.” The women take command!
After a string of riveting dramatic productions, it’s disheartening to see that period style is yet to be the Southern Rep’s forte.
Don’t expect the polished, aristocratic behaviors or erudite one-liners of “Downton Abbey.” Despite attention to the dialect, the studied decorum of British appropriateness eludes most of the cast, but only marginally distracts from enjoying the frantic action.
I’m not sure the performers are well served by the directors’ overly presentational concept where often the actors seem more intent in playing to the audience than interacting with each other.
The updated character of Mary owes much to Shakespeare’s Beatrice, herself a proto-feminist of sorts, who guards a yearning heart with a formidable wit.
Hair pulled skull-tight, head held rigidly high, Jaksch seizes the role of Mary with great relish, craftily counterpointing a thunderous schoolmarmish preciseness with a hidden vulnerability as when she discovers the mistaken love letter.
As the bumbling Arthur, Hoch delivers the most distinguished performance of the night. Where others often telegraph the context of their next moment, Hoch’s spontaneity surprises with a what-will-he-do-next fascination. Like Mary, you can’t help but find him adorable.
Both with panicky eyes barely concealed behind identical round eyeglasses, Mary and Arthur are perfectly matched — a match only the two of them could love.
Other than Hoch and Newcomer, who makes a kindly Darcy, most of the cast has yet to discover the value of subtly. As directed, too often these energetic actors convey every defining aspect about their characters within the first 10 seconds of their performance. And the clockwork precision required of high comedy is still developing.
Dust off the festive trimmings and, full disclosure, this play has very little to do with Christmas. Any family gathering would serve the plot. It seems its hidden intention is to attract holiday theater-goers who can’t stand one more “Christmas Carol.”
“Miss Bennet” elevates itself from a standard, albeit period, rom-com by praising the growth of marginalized individuals such as Mary who learns to value her idiosyncrasies, assert her talents and authority, and realize that the future belongs to her.
Fans of Southern Rep will certainly appreciate the undeniable sweetness of this production. First-timers may not be similarly enchanted.
Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Marquette Theater, Loyola University, 6363 St. Charles Ave.
INFO: (504) 522-6545 or southernrep.com