Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
The playwrights had the novel idea (pun) of centering the play around a young woman who is not in the market for a husband. The action takes place a few years after Pride and Prejudice ends. Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennet) and Jane Bingley (nee Bennet) are very marriedespecially Jane, who is preggers to the hilt. Both have gone off to take up their roles as mistresses of their rich husbands' estates. Mr. and awful Mrs. Bennet are off traveling, Kitty is off in London with relatives, and the foolish, and incorrigibly flirtatious Lydia is near the army camp with her lout of a husband, the despicable George Wickham.
That leaves Mary Bennet, the middle Bennet sister, alone to manage the lovely county estate of Mr. Darcy (James Rodriguez), Pemberley, all by herself (which, for an Austen heroine, means with a half-dozen servants). Mary is a Cinderella who doesn't dream of finding a Prince Charming. Nor does she want a circle of friends. She is a sworn "spinster" who fully embraces her singlehood (at least at the outset) and she treasures her solitude in the country.
Mary is hardly an obvious choice for a protagonist. In Pride and Prejudice, she does not come off very well. Not merely does this disdainful, often temperamental, unhappy child insist on playing the pianoforte wherever human beings gathers, but she plays so dreadfully that she can clear out a ballroom in five minutes. Mary is also pious and judgmental. The least sisterly of the five Bennet siblings, she is famously uncharitable late in the story when it is discovered that young Lydia has run off with caddish Wickham. As Jane weeps and Elizabeth tries to figure out how to help, Mary coldly remarks that lifelong misery is the younger Miss Bennet's just desert: "Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin."
The genius of Gunderson and Melon's script is to have extracted the virtues from Mary's faults. In the play, she is still the same Mary: nerdy, bookish, and disdainful of less inquiring minds. She still can't suffer fools, but she is no longer resentful about being outshone by her charming older sisters. Mary has tutored her wit and learned to truly enjoy her own company, and who wouldn't, in her shoes? In just a few years, she has blossomed into a clever, highly capable, and self-possessed young woman. Mary was always a loner, but at Pemberley she uses her solitude to enrich her mind and sate her love of music. Through discipline and practice, she has matured into a passionate and talented pianist. Darcy's large library is a treasure trove that she explores day and night. Where, earlier, Mary's learning mostly consisted of memorized fact, the Miss Bennet of Pemberley is a true intellectual, drawing together and synthesizing information from various fields of knowledge. No one can miss the metaphorical implications of Mary's pouring over maps, trying to understand the contours of her world and her place in it.
Bardin's performance is packed with quirks and subtleties. Look at the way she holds a book, or cringes when she hears herself cracking a pathetic joke, or the way she stretches her neck up and lifts her chin like a child whenever she feels defensive. When she meets her male counterpart, her spiritual doppelganger, in the equally bookish, awkward and nerdy Mr. de Bourgh, the chemistry is overwhelming. The two are mirror images of one another, even to the extent of reading the same book at the same time. Both love maps of the world and botany; both somehow manage to trip and fall even while they are standing still. Bardin and Johnson are equally masterful at physical comedy, and they make a brilliant comic paring. Additionally, Baldwin's pacing and blocking is as careful as a precision watch.
The cast is so consistently good that it seems arbitrary to single anyone out for special praise. That said, Kelsey Didion, who gave such a beautifully layered performance as Mercutio in Joe Haj's Romeo and Juliet, is marvelous as a desperately animated Lydia, whose marriage to wicked Wickham has, as predicted, turned out to be loveless. The rich grace and delicacy of Austen women is on full display when Jane (Adia Morris, in an elegant performance) charitably pretends to accept her younger sister's pretense of domestic happiness, while extending an invitation to join the Bingley household. Watch Didion as she struggles to hide her joy and relief, even as she maintains her façade of marital happiness. It will break your heart. And Becca Hart, as a housemaid, delivers lovely little 19th century ditties with great nuance. She has such a sweet voice; on high notes, it sounds like a soft pipe.
Give yourself a holiday gift: go see Miss Bennet this weekend.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, through December 30, 2017, at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets, call 612-822-7063 or visit jungletheater.com.
Directed by Christina Baldwin