“CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY,” through Dec. 15, Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, room 325 (801-581-6191 or http://www.pioneertheatre.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
How insupportable it must be to watch two elder sisters be so happily matched with gentleman of good fortune and fine character while she awaits her turn. And how insufferable it must be to see even her younger and very silly sister Lydia with a husband of her own. The middle Miss Bennet, it seems, is doomed to live out her days at Longbourn with little more than a library and her pianoforte for company.
She doesn’t mind it — not really — after all, what are young men to maps and music?
Pioneer Theatre Company’s performance of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” directed by Julie Kramer, begins with our heroine reflecting on such things. And to take her mind off her current circumstance, Mary Bennet (Elizabeth Ramos) spends the holiday with her sisters at what some might consider the finest estate in all of England.
(Christmas and Pemberley? Yes, Janeites, it’s everything you could ever ask for.)
It’s been two years since Elizabeth Bennet (Emily Nash) married Mr. Darcy (Greg Balla). True to form, the “Pride and Prejudice” protagonist is already stirring things up at the estate by bringing a German custom into the household — that of a Christmas tree.
The ever-careful Mr. Darcy is not particularly fond of the unusual decoration. But as he's just surprised his wife that his cousin, Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Jamen Nanthakumar), will be staying with them this Christmas, he makes a truce with his wife — both the foliage and the bachelor get to stay.
Arthur is a new character imagined by co-writers Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, but Austen fans will recognize his surname. The nephew of the late Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Arthur has inherited his aunt’s estate and prefers to be called "Mr. de Bourgh," instead of the title, as he's still growing accustomed to the idea of his inheritance.
Adorably awkward upon his arrival in a mustard yellow coat, Arthur is clearly more accustomed to interacting with his old Oxford chums than being in the company of a young lady. But when he first stumbles upon Mary — whose fascination with all things scientific are equal to his own — it seems his deficiency in flirting is something he is determined to overcome.
It’s here “Christmas at Pemberley” really shines on PTC’s stage: What starts out as a scientific conversation about Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique turns into a palpable — and endearing — chemistry between Mary and Arthur.
Mary has her quirks in “Pride and Prejudice,” but in this production, her frank nature now recommends her. Ramos’ interpretation of the main character rings true of a young woman suffering from a severe case of “middle child syndrome,” but we also get a clear picture of the adventure she craves in life.
Ramos flawlessly executes the complexity of Mary’s feelings, bouncing between seeking advice from Jane Bingley (Rachel Clausen), Elizabeth and even, on occasion, Lydia Wickham (Jessica Naimy), to pouring her heart out in an angry Beethoven rendition. The energy and quick wit Ramos puts into her role, paired with Nanthakumar’s bumbling demeanor, is something audiences will quickly appreciate.
And the conversation! Rapid-fire dialogue with superb British accents are enough to entice any arts patron to the cozy environment of PTC’s theater. It’s a breath of fresh air from the standard musicals so popular these days and very well could give the classic “A Christmas Carol” a run for its money.
Be forewarned, though, there are no great plot twists in “Christmas at Pemberley.” And while the troublemakers in the play are convincingly irksome, their roles feel at odds with the rest of the show. Despite their haughty and flighty demeanors, Miss Anne de Bourgh (Savannah Moffat) and Lydia (Naimy) never truly feel like real threats to the happiness of the characters at large. Distracting? Yes. Well crafted into the plot? Unfortunately, Gunderson and Melcon missed the mark on that one.
But be prepared to laugh at the antics of a cast that feels like family. With only one set throughout the performance — full of look-alike time-period furniture (including a library with a secret door and a pianoforte) — there are no scene changes, and the play is solely supported by the high-quality acting.
With enough empire waists and cravats to go around, Susan Branch Towne's costume designs were spot-on — a standout being Jane’s gold gown in the last act. Lauren Helpern's scenery is pleasantly intimate — from Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley sauntering about in their dressing gowns to the four Bennet sisters squashed together on a couch (Kitty Bennet is oddly absent from the script).
But above all, what’s most remarkable about “Christmas at Pemberley” is not its well-timed humor or the familiar characters gracing the stage. Portraying the journey of a woman far ahead of her time, the comedy has a surprising amount of depth to it that audiences likely won't expect, making the events that unfold all the more worthwhile.
Novices to Austen's works need not fear being excluded from the fun — as long as you've got some knowledge of “Pride and Prejudice,” you won’t feel left behind. And for those Janeites in attendance, there are a few gems in the script that will undoubtedly get you laughing.
Full of wit and charm — and don’t forget the tree — “Christmas at Pemberley” invites the audience to stay awhile at Mr. Darcy's estate. And with the delightful production PTC has put on, that invitation shouldn't be too hard to accept.
Content advisory: True to her character, Lydia Wickham flirts frequently throughout the play, despite her married status. There are also a few brief sexual jokes.