Poor Mary Bennet.
Jane Austen barely gave her any ink in her 19th century novel “Pride and Prejudice.”
Mary, the middle of the five Bennet sisters, kind of didn’t deserve any. She was dull, her nose was always stuck in a book and she was judgmental and insisted on playing the pianoforte. Badly. She was destined to a loveless life.
Ah, but that was then.
Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have given us a new Mary in their giddily-delightful play “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” now on stage at Arizona Theatre Company.
It’s a few years after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy put aside their differences and wed. They are hosting a family Christmas at their fabulous estate, Pemberley.
All the action takes place in the impressive drawing room, packed with books and lined with gorgeous windows looking out on the snowy English countryside (kudos to set designer Apollo Mark Weaver).
The minute Mary walks in, she heads for those books. Her sisters see her as dweeby as ever and barely acknowledge her. But when an unexpected guest shows up, well, Mary wakes up.
Gunderson and Melcon nailed it: the language, the personalities, the wit that made Austen’s book so loved are carried over into the script. They even stick in a few favorite lines from the original. And they do this all with reverence and originality.
Sean Daniels’ keen sense of direction — and humor — fashions “Miss Bennet” into a play that is a must-see for fans of Austen, as well as those who have never read her.
A strong cast helped. One of the delights in this play was watching Jessica Jain breathe life into Mary, who has become somewhat of a master on the pianoforte, quick-witted, and sick and tired of being invisible. Alexis Bronkovic plays the feisty Elizabeth with aplomb, Elena Lucia Quach delights as the foolish Lydia and Shonda Royall makes sure that Jane’s sweetness and kindness shine through. Jane is very, very pregnant, and we ache with her as she slowly rises from chairs and waddles across the floor.
Married life has made Mr. Darcy less arrogant and exceedingly tolerant, and John Patrick Hayden does the character justice. John Gregorio was a hoot as Jane’s husband, Mr. Bingley. And there is an interlude between scenes where he is playing charades and is miming a hunting scene (OK, we think it’s a hunting scene) that is an absolute stitch.
The Arthur de Bourgh character — played with exquisite precision by Seth Tucker — is new to Austen, but you’d never know it. He would fit perfectly in the pages of her books. He is just as nerdy as Mary, in love with books and socially quite awkward. He has inherited the late Lady Catherine’s estate — law has it that only males, however remotely connected, can benefit from death. This puts Anne De Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter and lifelong inhabitant of the estate, in a very vulnerable spot.
Now, Lady Catherine was a doozie: haughty, bossy and a bully. Her daughter, Lady Anne, was once a shy, sickly girl overshadowed by a bear of a mother, but she has come to Pemberley to demand a marriage so she doesn’t have to leave her home. She has turned into her mother, and Veronica Duerr captures her perfectly.
The costumes are almost another character in the play. Lux Haac designed gowns that flowed and glowed. They were exquisite.
“Miss Bennet” is billed as a holiday story, and indeed it takes place around Christmas and there’s a very tall tree in the drawing room (a new idea to England at the time, and it quite befuddled all the characters but Elizabeth, who made sure it took a prominent spot in the room). But really, no matter the season, we would hang out with these characters and this story any time.