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Christmas with Jane Austen

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The most delightful Christmas confection of the season is not a gingerbread house but a play currently being performed at the Austin Playhouse.

 

Written by Lauren Gunderson (the most produced living playwright in America) and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley made its world premiere in 2016, and has already become a staple with theatre companies all over the country.

 

With a legion of Jane Austen fans to support it, that is not too surprising. Her book Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic bestsellers of all time. The play is an imagined sequel, set two years after the book in Mr. Darcy's home of Pemberley, featuring the gaggle of Bennett sisters in a whole new set of marital travails.

 

The year is 1815, and with a beautiful set consisting of a drawing room and library by designer Mike Toner, and period costumes by Buffy Manners, one feels very much in the moment.

 

The play centers around Mary Bennett (played by Jess Hughes), the only one of the sisters to remain unmarried, and her unexpected love interest, Arthur (Stephen Mercantel).

 

Jess Hughes and Stephen MercantelJess Hughes and Stephen MercantelMy only quibble is with the visual portrayal of Mary. In the promotional photo Mary is shown wearing glasses, rightly making her appear very bookish. It would have been more in keeping with her character to have her wear glasses during the play.

 

Elizabeth, star of the book and wife of Mr. Darcy, is sensibly played by Jenny Lavery; Maria Latiolais as Lydia is given a cloyingly wonderful stage presence, and Marie Fahlgren brings to the pregnant Jane just the sort of empty-headed but lovable persona Austen fans expect. And of course sister Mary, who (as one sister says) casts of 'chill of inaccuracy' over every conversation. The cast is completed by Samuel Knowlton who gives us the quintessential Mr Darcy, his brother-in-law Charles (Zac Thomas) who seems blissfully happy with his wife Jane, and Katie Kohler as the control freak Anne, who has her own designs on Arthur.

 

As the title of the play suggests, the time is Christmas, and Elizabeth becomes a trend-setter by placing a tree in the drawing room. The myth is that Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert introduced this German tradition to England in the 1840s, but it was actually done by King George III's wife Queen Charlotte in 1800. Even so, very few people would have decorated their homes with a tree in 1815, so it is no wonder everyone who enters the drawing room remarks on why a tree is indoors.

 

Mary, who wails that she “still suffers from a lack of definition,” finds a kindred spirit in the socially challenged Arthur. Mercantel's portrayal of this character is eminently believable, which is critical to the success of the production as he is the pivotal character. Who he chooses to marry – Anne or Mary – is the angst-driven engine that powers this play to a conclusion that even its characters describe as “shock and wonder.”

 

Mercifully absent from the play are the moralistic tones that seem to characterise many of the plays set in this era. This is one of the most innocently enjoyable plays I have seen in a quite a while. A superb production with delightfully quirky characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, this is a Christmas treat to be savoured by all theatre-lovers in Austin.

 

Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley is playing until Dec. 23. Visit the website for tickets:

www.austinplayhouse.com

 

 

 

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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