By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the charmer of a holiday show up and running (well, alighting gracefully) on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage, characters are startled when they notice the live tree in the drawing room.
In the course of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, this radical (and bare) evergreen outsider will gradually acquire a paper star or two and then light — and become, tad-da, a Christmas tree. And you’ll want to celebrate.
Something like that happens to the title misfit in this droll and cleverly written romantic comedy hit by the American team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
It revisits the world of Jane Austen’s 1813 comic masterpiece Pride and Prejudice two years after that novel closes the book, matrimonially speaking, on a household with a double-sided crisis — to wit, a surplus of marriageable daughters, five, and a shortage of cash — and its chief satisfaction, the pairing of the spirited sparkler Lizzie Bennet and the alluring Colin Firth (sorry, slip of the pen there), I mean Mr. Darcy.
The Bennet sisters are gathering for the holidays at the Darcys’ grand digs. And suddenly we’re seeing the Austen world through an unfamiliar optic: Mary, the forgotten middle sister, the bookworm who plays the piano and barely rates an occasional mention in Pride and Prejudice. And when she does, it’s to be dismissed as dull, or tiresome, or pedantic.
Mary is the sister whose name you rack your brain and Coles Notes to recall, whose womanly fate in the Regency world is to be a career spinster, parental care-giver, and future charity case. That is, if you notice her at all. In this 2016 comedy Mary complains of suffering from “lack of definition” vis-à-vis her sisters. And she’s absolutely right.
How smart, and fun (not to mention profitable), it is to tune Austen’s satire, with its sharp wit (and crystalline language), to a contemporary sensibility — by being all about Mary. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story must be in want of a sequel. And this, dear readers, is Pride and Prejudice and Personal Choice.
This is by way of introduction to the lively, handsome, vividly realized production directed by Nancy McAlear in her Citadel directing debut. At the centre, a particularly modern position for the dismissible family nerd, is Mikaela Davies. And she’s terrific as Mary — bristly, awkward, impolitic, and a lot smarter than she needs to be. It’s a performance that combines an undefined yearning to “live the large life,” social naiveté, and exasperation in measures that will make you laugh and warm your heart.
In a world of circumscribed responses for women, she’s always blurting things impetuously, answering too fast, too sharply, and two jumps ahead, without assessing the possible outcomes. Caution is not her forte; evidently, Mary has had enough of meekly being relegated in Pride and Prejudice. Davies’ comic timing in all of the above is impeccable. Her twin refuges are the library and the pianoforte. And Davies attacks the latter with zest and a certain defiance.
The unexpected arrival Arthur de Bourgh straight from Oxford is the entry on the scene of a kindred nerd, ill-suited for his world, albeit one oiled by inherited wealth. And as Arthur, whose first official act onstage is to open a book and smell the spine, Umed Amin is appealingly awkward, innocent, and wonderstruck, in a performance animated by the sense of discovery. “I find myself quite unprepared for the complexities of … people.”
One of the complexities is Mary, a fellow outcast who’s fortified by a number of defences, including irony, that he, poor lad, doesn’t have. Will they find their way to each other? Will it be a good night for romantic comedy? People, use your imaginations here, and get yourself a ticket to this festivity.
McAlear’s well-staged production, attentive to every choreographed scene change, is attractively cast, with a view to our rediscovering characters we recognize, at least a bit, from the novel. Mathew Hulshof captures the dry wit and the calm reserve that are what Mr. Darcy’s stand-offishness were really all about in the novel.
Perhaps he’s turning gradually into his father-in-law. In the performance by Allison Edwards-Crewe, at least on opening night, I found Lizzie pitched a little unrecognizably to the giddy and overheated as the incarnation of the sister whose romantic fortunes command our attention in the novel. While very charming and very energetic, Lizzie here is particularly resistant to sympathy for Mary’s plight. And that steals a little of Lydia’s thunder: Emma Houghton is a hoot as the flirtatious ninny, who has to be brought to her senses.
Emma Laishram is lovely as the conciliatory Jane, who sweetly tries to understand her wayward sister and make peace for Christmas. Cameron Kneteman is droll and sympathetic as Mr. Bingley, in countdown mode to fatherhood. And the male-bonding scenes between Darcy and Bingley are amusing. Gianna Vacirca has a show-stopping full-sail entrance (and vowels you could amputate a limb with) as an unexpected late and unwelcome arrival. She’s very funny as the comedy’s second and biggest obstacle to romantic resolution.
Dana Osborne’s fetching costumes and her grand Regency salon, with its arched windows and lighting by Oz Weaver, are high-style and of the time. There’s the odd moment in the writing when the contemporary agenda seems to nudge period style out of the way. “I find myself struggling to recall who I am, or perhaps I struggle against whom they expect me to be.” Tell it to your therapist, kid. But the actors have so much charm and skill, these are camouflaged.
In the end, there’s something moving about the insight Mary has brought to her impasse, and her courage as an advocate for her weaker new friend in the journey towards recognizing choice and untethering yourself from expectation to open up The World. Before the fa-la-la’s with all their expectations begin in earnest, what a delightful way to introduce the festive season.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written by: Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by: Nancy McAlear
Starring: Mikaela Davies, Umed Amin, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Emma Houghton, Mathew Hulshof, Cameron Kneteman, Emma Laishram, Gianna Vacirca
Running: through Dec. 9
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com