A Christmas Miracle for Austen Acolytes
by Lauren Gunderson & Magot Melcon
Southern Rep Theatre | New Orleans
directed by Aimée Hayes & Jeffrey Gunshol
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, is a production of New Orleans’s Southern Rep Theatre, co-directed by Aimée Hayes, artistic director of Southern Rep, and Jeffrey Gunshol at the Marquette Theatre of Loyola University New Orleans. Revisiting the beloved characters of Jane Austen’s literary classic Pride and Prejudice, the play continues the Bennets’ story in a turn of focus from Elizabeth Bennet, now Darcy, to a different Bennet sister. Mary Bennet, the most severe, studious, and unattached of the sisters takes the spotlight as the family reunites at the Darcys’ home for Christmas.
Helen Jaksch as Mary Bennet is an indelibly compelling lead. Small in stature, Jaksch is immediately disarming with powerful rigidity, swift, precise movement, and a full, healthy, sonorous timbre in her speech. Her costume of gray fabric as stiff as she is markedly drab in comparison with the uniformly pastel palette of her sisters: Elizabeth (Shelley Johnson), Jane (Annie Cleveland), and Lydia (Emily Russell). They are, as Mary puts it, “the sunshine to my shade.” Aside from a thin, burgundy trim and pink cheeks soon to be poeticized by her paramour, Mary Bennet is firmly colorless, suffering, in her words, of a “lack of definition.”
Mary’s counterpart, Arthur de Bourgh (Ian Hoch), also bespectacled and clothed in gray with a splash of red in his cravat, is equally stiff, earnest, and forthright. Though he is, perhaps, less socially adapted than Mary, which is exemplified best in the recurring visual gag of his sharp, doggedly rehearsed yet surprisingly unstudied formal bow. Without a doubt, Hoch is a masterful physical comedian. Mary and Arthur are mirror images of one another from costume to manner to a childlike fascination with maps exploring far regions of the Earth unseen by both of them. They come to discover a new, foreign territory together: the heart. For both, their journey confirms the notion of true love, as well as the value of honesty and curiosity over unquestioned complacency and deference to decorum.
The symmetrical arcs of Mary and Arthur track deftly in tandem with the costume design of Cecile Covert, each developing gradually more color as the show progresses. Eventually, Mary dons a floral, plum frock and Arthur a conspicuous paisley cumberbund. In the final scene, the most vibrantly colorful in the play, Arthur appears in a suit of brilliant purple, and Mary is revealed in a flowy, lavender dress; all traces of stiff gray have left them. It seems that Mary has finally found her definition. Covert’s design also shines in the dressing of Arthur’s accidental fiancée, Anne de Bourgh (Monica R. Harris), who first appears looking the spitting image of Mrs. Claus herself in white, fur cuffs and velvet magenta.
On the whole, Miss Bennet’s cast proves strong and capable without exception. Next to its deliciously charming leads in Jaksch and Hoch, the play showcases the remarkable talents of Shelley Johnson and Monica R. Harris, as Elizabeth Darcy and Anne de Bourgh. When the formidable, acerbic wits of Mary and Anne finally come head to head, the audience is in for a clash that is truly titanic. Jaksch and Harris do not spar daintily. A standout supporting performance belongs to James Bartelle as Charles Bingley, who exists in a state of blissfully vapid cheer through the lens of a small life consumed by a hobby of tinkering with tiny dioramas of Regency homes. Bartelle is at once warm and lovable yet laughably simple as the kind, vacantly wise Bingley.
Misdirecting us from the cold of winter, Joshua Courtney’s lighting design, like a spiced, mulled cider, wraps the audience in a toasty, warming glow ranging from golden to deep amber. He keeps the viewer in the cozy interior of Christmas at Pemberley. In transition sequences, Courtney achieves crisp, dreamlike shadows through dramatic side-lighting. This dreamlike effect is enhanced by Brendan Connelly’s choice of sometimes quite ethereal Christmas song renditions playing over scene transitions. The golden tones in the lighting design are matched in the scenic design of David Raphel: even the stark, dead trees of the exterior, only glimpsed through tall, curtained windows, are literally framed in gold. Raphel’s Greek motif comes through in white, marbled walls and a heavy, monolithic doorway. The attention to detail is astounding: two walls of antique book sets and a meticulously hand-detailed baby-grand piano. At center-stage is the Christmas tree which unsuspectingly falls butt to many delightful jibes. “Here we are again. The tree room” (It is noteworthy that the German tradition of keeping an evergreen indoors at Christmas time is bizarre to most and unthinkable to Anne de Bourgh).
In aesthetic, one can best compare Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley to an old-century, public-broadcasting Christmas special, the sort of program around which three or more generations might gather to watch, laugh, and bask in its wholesome good time. The play’s humor is sometimes broad, but not tackily so. Not unlike old variety formats, scene transitions are marked with playful transition cards paraded onto the stage by the Pemberley maid (Erin Sheets). Transition space is filled by co-director Jeffrey Gunshol’s simple choreography reminiscent of some upbeat waltzes and folk dances of the time period, practically serving to transport furniture and visually reinforce important character dynamics. The transitions also feature sound designer Connelly’s anachronistic pastiche of Christmas classics volleying from a traditional “Silver Bells” to jazzy organ and funky slap-bass. It goes on to tug at our heartstrings, underscoring the most tender moments between Mary and Arthur with gentle guitar or harpsichord. Lights soften for the couple’s climactic kiss, begging our hearts to soften with them—and they do. The entire family, amassed ’round the TV, can even sing along with the cast as they finish the evening in a cheery bout of “Three Ships.”
At last, although the show is exceedingly light and optimistic in theme, a staunchly feminist dialogue lies not far beneath surface of the text as Mary Bennet reminds Arthur de Bourgh of the privilege of wealthy males in their society. Twice Mary calls out the privilege of choice that Arthur at first denies, but with Mary’s illumination, he comes to understand what an absence of choice really means for a woman, finally recognizing that he truly has all the choice in the world. However, as to Mary’s finding her “definition” in her engagement to Arthur, the play seems to imply that the definition missing from Mary’s life was simply the presence of a man. When the only unwed Bennet sister, feeling somehow incomplete, is completed only once she finds a mate, whatever feminist message there may have been in the text seems undercut by societal necessities of the period.
Above all, the most valuable component of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is the charm of it leads, Helen Jaksch and Ian Hoch, and supporting player, James Bartelle. It is a play of nobly humble intentions which it executes to great success. The play is no slouch as piece of cultural nostalgia and family holiday spectacle.
photo | ©John B. Barrois