If you are a fan of Jane Austen and have a special fondness for “Pride and Prejudice,” the current production at Capital Stage should be a must for you. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a perfect Christmas play and a perfect sequel to the story of the Bennet sisters that was introduced in Austen’s much-beloved novel.
Producing artistic director Michael Stevenson premiered the play for Sacramento at Cap Stage a year ago, and he has brought it back for a second run. The production is again expertly directed by Peter Mohrmann (a co-founder of the company), and six of the eight cast members from last year have returned (one in a different role). The set, designed by Eric Broadwater, is largely unchanged, as are the lighting (designed by Leah Farrelly), costumes (Maggie Morgan), and sound (Ed Lee). The result is a production that beautifully delivers the continuing saga of the Bennet sisters that is told in this sequel.
The play is the creation of playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon. Ms. Gunderson has the honor of being the most-produced living playwright in America. (I’m not sure how such things are measured, but I’m not about to dispute the claim.) She has penned 20 plays and is still only 36 years old. She and Ms. Melcon reportedly drafted “Miss Bennet” on a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, Oregon. The play had a rolling world premiere in 2016, and it has been highly praised and well-received wherever it has been produced. With its return to Sacramento this year, it may be on its way to becoming as much of a seasonal evergreen for the capital city as the real Christmas tree that occupies center stage in the play (and claims no small amount of attention in the script).
The original story, for those who are unfamiliar with it or who, like me, read the novel decades ago, primarily concerns Lizzy, the second eldest of the five Bennet sisters, whose pride and prejudice almost destroy her chance for romance and marriage before a series of Austenesque coincidences set things right and reveal to her the true worth of her ultimate mate, Mr. Darcy. Along the way, the oldest Bennet sister, Jane, finds love in the person of Charles Bingley, and the novel ends happily with the marriage of both couples.
“Pride and Prejudice” is worth a read or a re-read at any point in life. When I read it as a teenager, I dreaded the assignment at first, convinced that it would be an absolute bore, but I quickly became engrossed with the characters and with the wondrous writing that makes parlor discourse real and human emotions palpable. I was also aided in my appreciation of Austen’s writing by my mother, who was, and still is (at age 97) a devoted fan of the author. She has read each of Austen’s six novels more than a few times, and, I am certain, would love “Christmas at Pemberley” as much as I do.
The play opens with two of the sisters, Lizzy and Mary, reading letters they had sent to each other (a way of bringing the audience up to date in the story). Mary tells Lizzy that she is enjoying being alone now that her four sisters have all left the homestead. She practices her piano constantly and otherwise spends her time reading books on biology and geography and philosophy. We quickly get the intended understanding that Mary is a classic nerd/egghead, who has little appreciation for socializing and even less ability at it.
Lizzy’s letter reveals that she is intent on hosting a Christmas reunion with her sisters and parents, and shortly after that opening scene, they all begin arriving at the Pemberley estate where she lives with her husband, the very socially correct, Mr. Darcy. The two are happily in love, as are Jane and Mr. Bingley. Jane, in fact, is very pregnant, a source of much excitement when they arrive.
Mary, eschewing the family pleasantries, quickly ensconces herself in the estate’s library where she becomes enchanted with an atlas of maps of the world. If pride and prejudice described Lizzy’s travails in the original novel, prim and proper is how Mary appears in this sequel. She is not so much standoffish as she is disinterested, albeit the two traits can be indistinguishable to those observing the person.
In any event, it is in this state that we find Mary Bennet as she, Jane, Charles, and, a little later Lydia (the youngest of the five girls) arrive at the estate. (The fifth sister, Kitty, is on holiday in London.) Lydia’s husband is not with her. Their marriage, also consummated in the original novel, has not gone well, and despite Lydia’s outwardly upbeat attitude, it soon becomes apparent that she is far less happy than she appears. Also soon to arrive at the estate is Arthur de Bourgh, an old friend of Bingley, and a distant cousin of Darcy, who has recently become a wealthy estate owner by virtue of the death of his aunt.
Arthur is a perfect match for Mary, if perfection in a relationship is measured by similar interests and desires. The attraction between the two is quickly established, as they are both reading the same book on metaphysics. The story could end there (and the play would then be a very short one-act) but, of course, in true Austen fashion, complications develop. And there I will leave the story-telling, for how the complications are resolved is the real joy of this wonderful confection. (Suffice it to say, I chuckled and teared up; the play is loaded with witty dialogue, and the story’s resolution is touchingly poignant.)
Mr. Mohrmann’s excellent cast, a true ensemble, is led by Elyse Sharp as Mary and Aaron Kitchin as Arthur (both returning in their roles from last year). Both characters are introverts, but the actors convey their characters’ personalities powerfully. They quickly become the center of audience attention, even as the other family members have more lines and are given more time to fret and plot and otherwise devise ways to bring the two together. Ms. Sharp grows into her role over the course of the play, which is another way of saying that she reflects Mary’s growth as a fully realized woman. Mr. Kitchin similarly turns his character from a caricature to a real-life young adult who struggles with his own fears and uncertainties.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Brittni Barger recalls a young Katherine Hepburn (more so than a staid Greer Garson) as Lizzy, and J.R. Yancher is the warmer version of Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Both (reprising their roles from last year) are excellent as the linchpins of the gathering. Jennifer Martin (new to the cast) and Kevin Gish play the other married couple. They are both excellent. If the cast has a best supporting actor, it is Mr. Gish. He perfectly portrays the ever-affable, ebullient and overly excited father-to-be. He is a delight to watch as he looks for ways to make every situation sunny.
Rounding out the cast are Allie Coupe as Lydia and Andrea J. Love (who played Jane last year) as Mr. de Bourgh’s cousin. Ms. Coupe provides a comically over-the-top performance in the first act before effectively showing her character’s real emotions in the second, and Ms. Love captures the effete snobbishness of her character with just the right mix of nastiness and egotism as the role requires.
The production is immensely aided by Mr. Broadwater’s set design that makes Pemberley in 1815 look just like it must have then, right down to the Christmas tree that Lizzy shockingly has placed in the middle of the family room. (The Christmas tree concept, according to the script, was unheard of in England at that time.) Also noteworthy are Ms. Morgan’s period costumes and the sound design (by the always impressive Mr. Lee) that for this show features the piano etudes Ms. Austen herself played in her day (heavy on Beethoven’s sonatas). One of the wonders of the production is how perfectly timed the recorded piano playing is with Ms. Sharp’s appearance of playing in those scenes where she takes to the instrument. You expect nothing less in a professional production, but it is no less impressive where it works perfectly each time.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” contains no cursing, no faux sex, no violence, no deep-thought message or avant garde conceits. That it is delivered lovingly and with a spirit that is very much, well, Christmas, and that it is, after all, a sequel that I’m convinced Jane Austen would have endorsed, are reasons to see it. That it will make you feel the joy of the season is just icing on the cake or, if you will, a star atop the Christmas tree.
Performances of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” continue through December 30. Tickets and information are available at the theater (2215 J Street), on line (www.capstage.org) or by phone (916-995-5464).