I am very unfamiliar with the works of Jane Austen. There, I said it. I know, I know. How have I not read Emma or Persuasion—or Pride and Prejudice? So, when Theatre New Brunswick began advertising its holiday production, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, I didn’t exactly jump to my calendar. It’s not for me, I thought.
I was wrong.
After a two-year absence, TNB returns to the Fredericton Playhouse. (Yeah, it’s been awhile). Ryan G. Hinds is back as well, this time in the director’s chair. You might remember him from It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, TNB’s last mainstage production before theatres closed due to the pandemic.
Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a “sequel” to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where the focus is—finally—on Mary Bennet (Jillian Hanson). Mary is the Bennet family’s awkward middle child. She disappears in a room, preferring to study maps and scientific theories than engage in frivolous conversation. Of course, since it is the holidays, Mary will do her best to socialize with her sisters and their husbands, Mr. Darcy (Kenzie Delo) and Mr. Bingley (Santiago Guzmán), during her stay at Pemberley.
Mary’s world is turned upside down when Mr. Darcy’s cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Tallas Munro), arrives at the country estate. Well, not right away. Here’s the thing: you can be absolutely brilliant and not see what’s in front of you. It’s like that Gary Larson cartoon where the kid genius pushes on a door that says pull.
Arthur and Mary are two peas in a pod. Among their similarities: Arthur is awkward. He enjoys the company of books, finding people too complex. If only Arthur and Mary could see the obvious! The sparks are there, but neither knows how to express their feelings. Elizabeth Darcy (Lara Lewis) and Jane Bingley (Sharisse LeBrun) try intervening to help Mary while Lydia Wickham (Caroline Coon), the youngest of the Bennet sisters, pursues Arthur for herself. However, Mary and Lydia have a surprise/terror waiting in the wings, and her name is Anne de Bourgh (Melissa MacKenzie).
The Pride and Prejudice connection might scare some people away. ‘Literary classic’ is a term that evokes required reading in high school English. It’s homework. Miss Bennet isn’t that. It’s fun. It’s sharp. It feels contemporary while splashing around in the time period.
For anyone curious, I read up on Pride and Prejudice—like a student cramming for an exam—before coming to see the play. It’s not necessary to do so, but I think it’s helped me sink into the play a little more.
The reason I say it’s not necessary to read the source material: Miss Bennet is not a thesis paper where the authors argue why Mary Bennet deserved better. The story presented here is universal. You root for Mary because she is the underdog, the social misfit who hasn’t yet found her people, or in this case—her person. Mary is like Elizabeth’s Christmas tree, a German tradition now installed in Pemberley. Everyone has their opinion on it, but in the end, the tree does what the tree does—it stands tall. So, you could say the play is a defense of Mary Bennet. However, I think it’s a celebration of the character and all the Mary Bennets of the world.
TNB’s production is like the house in your neighbourhood decked out with Christmas lights. It’s lit. The inspiration from Netflix’s Bridgerton is obvious. The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ can be heard, along with other popular songs like Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’ and ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes. The musical arrangements complement the setting (Composer, Sound Designer: Jodee Richardson).
Hinds’ vision for a contemporary presentation is what you want after two years sitting at home, flipping through Netflix. You want to feel. You want to be entertained. You want to share an experience with strangers. The production achieves all that. It just feels so fresh and alive. Kudos to Hinds for approaching the play with a clear direction in mind.
Pemberley looks exquisite thanks to set designer Andrea Evans. Lighting designer Leigh Ann Vardy paints the estate in warm festive colours that inspire romance. The outfits are spectacular. Sherry Kinnear has really outdone herself.
Hanson is the kind of actress you want as your anchor. Around her are actors playing large personalities (LeBrun plays a buoyant and very pregnant Jane). Hanson pulls your focus. You want to listen to every word she sees, and Mary Bennet has a lot to say. Her acerbic delivery makes for great comedic moments.
Speaking about Mary, the character says something that couldn’t apply more to Coon in the role of Lydia—”younger sisters are squeaky.” The actress brings ‘pest scurrying from room to room’ energy to her character. She’s an airheaded menace. Although, she has her reasons for acting out in such a way. Coon is a delight in the role.
Munro is endearing as the nerdy and newly minted Lord Arthur de Bourgh. Hanson and Munro are like wine and cheese, a solid pairing.
TNB’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a festive treat.
Theatre New Brunswick’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs December 9 – 11 at the Fredericton Playhouse. The production has a final performance on December 12th at the Imperial Theatre.