Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
First Sequel to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" at Altarena Playhouse
By: Victor Cordell - Oct 22, 2023
At times, you may suspect that a play you’ve previously seen wasn’t really as good as you’d remembered. Other times, you may fear that that a play wouldn’t hold up well if seen again in a different production a few years later. Sometimes, you’re wrong on both counts.
Altarena Playhouse has revived the first of the Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon’s unofficial trilogy of theatrical sequels to Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” The result is charming and wildly entertaining.
The main reason for qualms about revisiting “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is that the plotline seems so thin. After all, it centers on whether a mousy middle sister from a modest middleclass English family will attract the attention of a young, recently-titled, no-count duke. What does make that situation significant and one that recurred in Austen’s novels is the law of primogeniture, by which real property (i.e., land and buildings) must pass to a single male heir. Necessarily. the eldest son is the first in line.
Since the Bennet sisters have no brother, their family house will pass onto the closest male relative when their father dies. This situation leaves bachelorettes defenseless, so a successful marriage is imperative. Mary, the middle of the five, has been outshined by her more gregarious and “successful” married sisters and has retreated to music and books for solace. But at this family gathering, the three other sisters (Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia - the youngest, Kitty, is not present) do note that Mary has become more assertive and adult.
Samantha Rich’s portrayal of Mary abounds with great authority while eliciting sympathy. Socially clumsy and vulnerable, Rich is nonetheless haughty and willing to challenge with the chill of accuracy the slightest error of speech that others make in social conversation. Often ignored or forgotten by her sisters, her relationship with Lydia is particularly fractious as they couldn’t be more opposite.
Zoe Novic plays Lydia with delightful buoyancy, but her depiction of Lydia’s shallowness, dishonesty, and meanness toward Mary is appropriately grating. Married to the dastardly Wickham, Lydia hides her failures with effusive and offensive bravado.
Enter the newly-made duke, distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh, who has been invited to spend Christmas with the family. Nico Jaochico captures Arthur’s spirit with great confidence. His character lacks social grace, as he is laughably deer-in-the-headlights oblivious and klutzy as well.
Intellectually a perfect match for Mary, Arthur even corrects Jane’s husband Bingley who has referred to her upcoming delivery of a newborn as an extraordinary event. Arthur, with concurrence from Mary, explains that statistically it is anything but extraordinary, but he obviously misses the subjective human side of the event. He also finds it difficult to fend off the irrepressible Lydia, and other complications occur.
Jane Austen laid solid bedrock for building on her formidable work, and Gunderson & Melcon have magnificently added new layers to the Bennet family saga. Issues of love, duty, conformity, and choice permeate the action. The playwrights grasp the language, customs, and manners of early 19th century manor life in England and have imbued their script with humor that fits the social class of time yet resonates with modern audiences. They have also endowed their main characters with well-defined and interesting personalities.
Apart from the many person-to-person issues that are plumbed, one funny thread that runs through the show concerns the appearance of a spruce tree that sister Elizabeth Darcy has installed inside Pemberley for the holidays. In keeping with the social orthodoxy of the day, several family members separately question the unprecedented and socially questionable idea of removing a tree from nature to display it in a home! Well, Merry Christmas to you, too!
Altarena has shown once again that its productions can compete with better endowed theater companies in the Bay Area, and Director Jaquie Duckworth has found all of the keys to success. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is by no means lavish, but the actors are well dressed (designs by Janice Stephenson and Katina Psihos Letheule), as is the stage (designed by Tom Curtin and Katina Psihos Letheule with props design by Susan Dunn). Other artistic elements such as lighting (Kevin Myrick) and sound (Michael O’Brien) complement the production superbly. The actors all answer the call with fine performances. What is particularly comforting to the audience is that the actors’ accents, while clearly English, are also clearly consistent and understandable.
Although Christmas appears in the title, the show doesn't share traits with many holiday offerings, but for many theater goers, this may be a plus. In any event, the play and this production are both delightful and well worth seeing.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” written by Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon is produced by Altarena Playhouse and is performed on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through November 19, 2023.