A contemporary twist for a literary classic

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 12/1/22

Stagecrafters kicked off the holiday season with a lush production of "Miss Bennet – Christmas at Pemberley."

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A contemporary twist for a literary classic


Stagecrafters kicked off the holiday season with a lush production of "Miss Bennet – Christmas at Pemberley." Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon cherry pick Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" to create a play that retains Austen's social criticism, even in the form of a happy-making Christmas special.

Jane Austen, who was born in 1775 and died in 1817, may have been the original feminist. Elizabeth Bennet, one of her most popular heroines, rebels against  limitations – as marriage was then the only way for a woman to achieve financial security and standing. (Austin herself turned down a marriage proposal because she found her wealthy suitor unlovable).

In this playful sequel, it is now 1815 and the focus shifts to Mary, played by Claire Adams. She is the plain, middle sister who resigns herself to playing piano and reading. Then Arthur de Bourgh, played by Sam Oberle, visits for Christmas. He is an eligible bachelor who is as intellectual and socially awkward as Mary’s. In a stilted way, the sparks fly.  

"Miss Bennet" retains Austen's critical social perspective, but in the holiday sequel there are no "bad people." Sister Lydia and Anne de Bourgh (Diamond Princess Franklin) seem intent on destroying Mary's chance at happiness; we soon learn they are just caught up in a suffocating and male-dominated world.

The dresses chosen by head costume designer Jennifer Allegra tell the story. Mary's clothes are homespun, while the three married sisters, Jane (Lillian Moffatt), Lidia (Kiera Sheehan) and Lizzie Darcy (Carly Belko) parade about the Darcy estate in showy gowns. The husbands, Charles Bingley (Gilad Avrahami) and Mr. Darcy (Mark Sherlock), sport clothes that are stiffly formal.   

This is one way director Jane Toczek evokes the mannered politeness of England's landed gentry during the Regency era. Characters stand on form, avoiding honest expressions of feeling. Mary delivers the best line of the night. While playing piano, someone asks if she is angry. Mary replies, "I'm not angry; Beethoven is."

Some performances stand out. Carly Belko is a glowing Lizzie. She is now happily married, having transformed Darcy into a more loving person. But Mark Sherlock's cock-of-the-walk carriage suggests Darcy has not fully shed his old haughtiness. Oberle is charming as Mary's irresolute and hapless suitor. With his lanky movement, he always seems out of place. He kept reminding me of Ichabod Crane.

Stagecrafters always takes pride in set development but they outdo themselves with this one. The set, designed by Patricia Masarachia, in some ways becomes the show. The green paneled walls and furnishings are sumptuous. It did not surprise me that program notes cite a small army of volunteers who helped in its construction. 

A Christmas tree dominates the scene, growing plush with ornaments over time. Successive visitors to Pemberley make merry over the introduction of this new-fangled German custom. You see the snowy estate through huge rear windows. In moments when the stage is bare, lighting designer Gilbert Todd creates a sense of limitless beauty and mystery with shifting lights. 

Unlike the original story, everyone in this production is good. While Lidia and Anne first seem to be meanies, the play reveals that they, too, are victims of patriarchy. The loving women of Pemberley take them under their wing. As those front lawn signs would have it, "There is no hate in this house."

You might also say "Miss Bennet" is sentimental. That would be both true and uncharitable.  Gunderson and Margot Melcon heist "Pride and Prejudice" to create a savory Christmas truffle. So if you are tired of Tiny Tim, Angel Clarence and Charlie Brown, check it out.

The Stagecrafters Theatre is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. "Miss Bennett" will run through Dec 11.  Tickets are available at 215-247-9913 or online at thestagecrafters.org