Calling all Janeites and acolytes of JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America, as if you didn't know) or anyone who ever panted over the sight of tousled Colin Firth in a wet muslin shirt. There's a new Jane in town, and Main Street's got her.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2016), Lauren Gunderson and Margot Metcom's sequel of sorts to Austen's masterpiece Pride and Prejudice, goes down smoothly and effortlessly as a glass of sherry. It warms you with Regency charm, literate wit, and a high gloss of the socioeconomic predicament of unmarried ladies of no certain means. It carries its simple message as if embroidered on a sampler, albeit a handsome piece of needlework.
In merrie olde England, unmarried women had no recourse, “no choice” as Mary Bennet (Chaney Moore) says with indefatigable ardor when it comes to inheritance and property rights. Only male heirs got the goods, as it were, and daughters were left out in the cold to fend for themselves. From grand estates to humble cottages, only the sons profited. If there were no male offspring, then the inheritance passed to the next male relative, be it cousin, nephew or uncle. It's no wonder that daughters were on the prowl to catch a husband. Love doesn't stand a chance when dynastic problems trip you up. If you remember your Austen, you know all about this. In the novel Mrs. Bennet is hellbent on finding suitable husbands for her five daughters because the house is entailed to Mr. Bennet's second cousin.
It is now two years later, and the Bennet daughters re-une at Elizabeth and Darcy's plush home, Pemberley. Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage is an equal one, once Lizzie (Laura Kaldis) shed her prejudice and Darcy (Spencer Plachy) his pride. They are blissfully happy. Jane (Heidi Hinkel) and husband Charles Bingley (Blake Weir) arrive with Jane expecting, a handsome healthy couple indeed. Married daughter Lydia (Skyler Sinclair), always tart-tongued, shows up without husband Wickham, which has the family gossiping about what has happened.
Mary, as usual, shows up alone, leaving her parents at home. The middle child of the Bennets, she is the intellectual one, the nerd of the family, the geek, “under-spiced.” With glasses perpetually perched on her nose, she is however the curious one, the one most perceptive to her fate. She loves books, science, music, the wonders of the world. She's come a long way from Pride and Prejudice where her pianoforte skills were minimal at best. Now she can maneuver through Beethoven's feverish “Moonlight” Sonata without batting an eye. “You're upset,” says a family member. “I'm not upset,” Mary retorts in fury, “Beethoven's upset!” She knows more than any of them what lies in wait for the wallflower, the unattractive, the brain. She's aware of her dire future in this male dominated world.
Mary is content to follow her own drummer until Darcy's cousin Arthur de Bourgh (Brock Hatton) appears – the spitting image of Mary. They have a shared passion in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique. Arthur might as well enter with a neon arrow pointing to him as her soulmate. We know instinctively that these two misfits – socially awkward, in love with knowledge – are the missing pieces in their own personal puzzle. Once they've introduced them, Gunderson and Metcom have nowhere else to go with the plot. We've seen the happy ending occur in the middle of Act I.
The authors throw roadblocks in the couple's way, but they're only marshmallows. Thank goodness for the tempestuous entrance of Anne de Bourgh (Lindsay Ehrhardt), whose haughty demeanor and condescension are utterly radiant. Ehrhardt drop kicks this play into overdrive. She announces with papal bull authority that she and Arthur are engaged and everyone better get out of her way. Now it's Arthur who must man up. I won't spoil the denouement, but I fear you're one or two paces ahead of me.
That's the problem with this literate, witty production. There are no surprises. Once Arthur correctly identifies the Christmas tree as spruce not fir, as did Mary at first glance, we know everything will work out. How could it not? Mary's too smart, too sweet, too knowing to be overthrown by bitchy, controlling Anne. Arthur, naturally, only needs the slightest nudge from Darcy and Bingley to set things right.
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Other than Arthur, the men have nothing to do, except flick up their decorative tailcoats when they sit down. “We're gentlemen,” says Darcy to Bingley, “we sit and wait for excitement to come to us.” And their characters do exactly that. But so do Mary's sisters. Who'd have thought that Elizabeth, so feisty, so controlled, so wise in P & P, would be so mute in this comedy? Everyone's on the periphery, beautiful window dressing notwithstanding, but all are in the backseat of this barouche. The dramatic complications are preordained.
The production, directed by Claire Hart-Palumbo, as in any Main Street presentation, is stylish and sumptuous with minimum effort. The Beau Brummel-era costumes by Deborah L. Anderson are confections of empire-waist dresses, hunting boots, cutaway waistcoats and ascots; while the setting from Ryan McGettigan includes that ubiquitous Madame Récamier divan á la David, a pianoforte, French windows, and John Constable-esque landscapes on the library wall. Whether the Darcys would have had a decorated indoor Christmas tree in 1815 is highly questionable – Queen Victoria made the German custom fashionable in England after 1846 – but why quibble, it's Christmas.
Under the tutelage of Gunderson and Melcon, and the loving hands at Main Street Theater, it's all quite pleasant at Pemberley during the holidays. One glass of sherry won't do, though. Make mine a triple, if you please.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Through December 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheatre.com. $36 to $45; $10 Student tickets with ID.