Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

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By Lauren Gunderson

and

Margot Melson.

Directed by Jessica Thebus.

At Northlight Theatre, Skokie.

Charming sequel to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice contains wit and a gentle poke at British drawing room comedy of manners.

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It is December, 1815 and the Darcy clan is gathered to celebrate Christmass  at their Pemberley country estate ( terrific set design by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod complete  with library). Elizabeth Darcy (Samantha Beach) has added a Christmas tree to her drawing room. This Christmas tree is  a German tradition that was still rarely seen in England in 1815. (Charles Dickens helped make the Brits adopt that in his novel,  A Christmas Carol published in 1843.) Mrs. Darcy is a social progressive open to new traditions.

We meet the outspoken, studious, and ever-dependable Mary Bennet (the spirited Emily Berman). Miss Bennet is the middle sister who’d rather read a scientific book that socialize. She doesn’t have any of the romantic escapades that her sisters enjoy. That Christmas, Mary meets a nerdy, studious young Lord, Arthur de Bourgh (a fabulous tern by Erik Hellman) who mirrors Mary’s interests and lifestyle. Is  de Bourgh only an intellectual match for Miss Bennet or is there love in the air?

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This world premiere sequel,   Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, to Pride and Prejudice is a nicely structured drawing room comedy of manners accurate to the social structure of 1815 English society. It is two years after Jane Austen’s story ended yet it contains the clever, witty and romantic style that plays like someone found a long-lost Austen script in a chest.

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We see how shy and introverted Arthur is and how much his lack of social skills with woman leads to him fumbling to socialize with Miss Bennet, herself a recluse introvert. Erik Hellman is doing his finest performance as Arthur. He is hilarious as the shy nerd as he fumbles both verbally and physically in his encounters with Mary.  Hellman and Emily Berman have a subdued romantic spark that is just waiting to ignite.

This is a smart, well-acted comedy of manners that could became fabulous play except for a flaw that renders much of the comedy hard to understand. The dialect coach, Adam Goldstein, has all the woman speaking in the same tone and pitch while using their RP British accents. Add their tendency to speak  too fast and the flaw of swallowing their  last few words of dialogue that results in audiences not understanding the words. You will not find a group of woman who sound exactly alike when speaking anywhere. My guest, at my request, closed his eyes when the four woman were exchanging witticisms, to see if he could determine who was speaking. He reported that all the woman sounded exactly alike so he didn’t know who was saying what. This hurt the production. Better to have each character sound different when using an accent. I only report that because several audience members stated that they had trouble understanding the woman, something directors need be aware of.

But despite that verbal flaw, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, is a worthy play filled with a cast who smartly present as British gentry. Erik Hellman and Emily Berman’s interactions fuel this gentle spoof of 19th Century upper class.

Recommended.

Tom Williams.

Date Reviewed: November 18, 2016.

Jeff Recommended.

For more info checkout the Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley page at theatreinchicago.com.

At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, call 847-673-6300,  www.northlight.org,   tickets $30 -$81, students $15, Tuesdays at 7:30, Wednesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7 pm, Running time is 2 hours with intermission, through December 18, 2016.