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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Review by Nancy Grossman

Also see Josh's review of 1776


Katie Grindeland, Veronika Duerr, Vichet Chum,
Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Jesse Hinson,
Victoria Grace, and Shawn K. Jain

Photo by Meghan Moore
Merrimack Repertory Theatre is presenting a most welcome diversion from the usual holiday fare, and one that will hopefully become a stalwart in the Christmas canon of theaters for years to come. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have teamed to imagine a sequel about the literary Bennet sisters, set some two years after the conclusion of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." It is December 1815 when they all gather upon Lizzie's invitation to join her and Mr. Darcy for Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Plain, bookish, middle sister Mary is the unlikely heroine of a story that focuses on family ties, expresses an appreciation for good fortune, and celebrates love.

Gunderson and Melcon capture the wit and honesty of Austen's writing, and director Sean Daniels and associate director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary establish a pace that is as swift and airy as a sudden swirl of snow flurries. An octet of incredibly accomplished actors (four of whom are making their MRT debuts) jump on board the fast-moving Pemberley express to convey the warmth and genuine affection the characters feel for each other, and the assorted traits that distinguish the four sisters and their male counterparts. The drawing room of the Darcys' grand estate is beautifully rendered by scenic designer James J. Fenton, with a floor-to-ceiling palladium arch window, walls covered with printed words and painted on shelves of books, and a towering (faux) Christmas tree which looms over the festivities.

Lizzie (Alexis Bronkovic) excitedly anticipates the arrival of her sisters, undaunted by the surprise announcement by her husband, Mr. Darcy (Jesse Hinson), that his distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh (Vichet Chum) will also be joining them. Although Lord de Bourgh has just inherited their late Aunt Catherine's estate, he has no close family with whom to spend Christmas and is far from being a social butterfly. First to arrive are Lizzie's closest and very pregnant elder sister Jane (Victoria Grace), with her husband Charles Bingley (Shawn K. Jain), accompanied by Mary (Amanda Collins), and soon followed by the youngest sibling, the flirtatious Lydia Wickham (Katie Grindeland), whose husband has remained at home.

While Mary has always been content in her solitude, with reading and playing the piano her chief pastimes, she is showing signs of dissatisfaction with her lot in life as the unmarried middle child consigned to look after their parents, eventually ending up in an attic somewhere after they die and leave their estate to a male relative. Her restlessness manifests itself in mournful piano solos and occasional snappish outbursts, usually directed at the frivolous, narcissistic Lydia. When Mary and Arthur tentatively connect as a result of their shared intellectual interests, Lydia threatens the match with her attempts to attach herself to Arthur like a barnacle. However, when cousin Anne de Bourgh (Veronika Duerr) pays an unexpected visit, exhibiting all the demureness of a bull in a china shop, she poses a more serious threat to their union.

Once all of the characters have arrived at Pemberley, the fun and games begin in earnest. Anonymous letters are breathlessly written to profess true feelings, only to fall into the hands of unintended recipients. Outside agitators (sisters, husbands, and brothers-in-law) gleefully intercede, plotting in the best tradition of Lucy and Ethel to achieve the outcome they desire. Arthur is buffeted by the prevailing wind of whichever woman can get the last word with him, while Mary staunchly refuses to be anything other than true to herself and do what is right. Without giving away the specifics, bear in mind that Miss Bennet is an uplifting story for the holidays, and Gunderson and Melcon lead everyone to a happy ending, with comfort and joy for all (the audience included).

Collins gives an understated yet commanding performance at the center of the story, and convincingly conveys Mary's struggle with her own changing desires. Some of my favorite scenes are her subtle (or not so subtle) exchanges of vitriol, especially with Grindeland's bratty Lydia, and with Anne, drawn by Duerr as a force of nature who suffers no fools. The men, while most often bemused or supportive, are the window dressing in this play, as the playwrights shine the spotlight on the relationships between the women and what each of them brings to the table. As it happens, stir in witty writing, brisk direction, gorgeous costumes, and effective lighting and sound effects, and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is quite a delightful feast.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, through December 23, 2018, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell MA. Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org.

Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Directed by Sean Daniels; Associate Director, Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Scenic Designer, James J. Fenton; Costume Designer, Linda Ross; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Wig Designer, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Producer, Peter Crewe; Production Stage Manager, Maegan Passafume

Cast (in alphabetical order): Alexis Bronkovic, Vichet Chum, Amanda Collins, Veronica Duerr, Victoria Grace, Katie Grindeland, Jesse Hinson, Shawn K. Jain


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