There are rare times in the theatrical firmament when everything comes together: a perfect storm, you might say, of acting, writing, and directing. I witnessed one in October when I journeyed to Denver to see a revolutionary production of “Macbeth.” I wondered, How long will I have to wait to see such an evening in Atlanta (I’ve seen some here, never fear).
Not long, it turns out. Theatrical Outfit has a perfect storm of its own in the utterly charming romantic comedy “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” by Atlanta-born playwright Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, directed by Carolyn Cook, Atlanta actor/director; it’s a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” running through Dec. 24. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know the characters instantly; but (I emphasize) it is not necessary.
It is 1815, two years after Elizabeth Bennet (Julissa Sabino) has married Fitzwilliam Darcy (Lee Osorio), and they are living on his grand estate called Pemberley. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy have decided to make the Christmas holiday a family affair, so with them are her elder sister Jane (Maria Rodriguez-Sager) and Charles Bingley (Juan Carlos Unzueta), awaiting the birth of their first child. Her energetic younger sister Lydia (Devon Hales) is there, as well as Mary Bennet (Amelia Fischer), the overlooked (unmarried) middle daughter.
Mary is witty, articulate, and an accomplished pianist; she is currently reading Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s “Philosophie Zoologique,” and has wondered aloud: “Can one live a large life in mind alone? I long for a life other than being someone’s wife and helpmate: I’d rather marry an interesting plant than an idiot man.” Ms. Fischer (as Mary) says these things with a sly smile at the audience. Can she be serious? Yes, she can; and she’s at once the most fascinating and magnetic woman onstage.
Into this familial mélange walks Mr. Darcy’s scholarly aristocratic cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Jonathan Horne), and suddenly the landscape changes. Arthur is the sort of young man who wakes up in the morning and apologizes for it; he may be a lord, Oxford-educated, wealthy, and quite handsome, but he’d be the last person on earth to recognize it. He’s exceedingly polite, socially awkward, and completely winsome (“I do not know that one can take credit for unconscious wit”).
Arthur may not recognize his sterling qualities, but every woman onstage does, particularly Lydia (she’s married but her husband’s away), who begins a serious flirtation—all the while reminding Mary that she is a settled old maid. You see, Arthur and Mary have noticed each other and sensed a kindred spirit, although neither can quite accept such a potentially miraculous alliance—yet.
And then, at the explosive end of Act I, Arthur’s ferociously determined cousin Anne de Bourgh (Galen Crawley) arrives and announces that she and Arthur are engaged to be married, and that’s that.
But that isn’t that, and gradually, Arthur comes to realize that he has the power to throw away his own happiness. Yes, this exceedingly clever play also has underlying questions of one’s duty, freedom, and personal happiness. When Mary reminds Arthur that he has the power of choice and freedom that women lack and can shape his own life; when Darcy tells him, “There is truth is your heart, and you must tell it”; when we see a new light dawn in Arthur’s eyes—we want to cheer.
In actuality, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is about the dawning of joy in all our hearts (not merely the enlightenment that the onstage characters experience), and I predict this play will become a holiday standard; I certainly hope so—although I cannot imagine a better cast than the one Theatrical Outfit has assembled—and you must see it. This is instantly the show of the season.
I am now a big fan of Amelia Fischer (Mary), heretofore under the radar to me, but no more. Jonathan Horne continues to thrill audiences with his talent and charisma; he carries his own spotlight, as was once said of another actor years ago. Galen Crawley comes alive onstage and magically merges with her character. Ms. Hales, Mr. Unzueta, Ms. Sabino, Mr. Osorio, Ms. Rodriguez-Sager are all sparkling and memorable.
I must commend dialect coach Grant Chapman; for some reason I’ve noticed that British actors do American accents better than most American actors do British accents. Well—I don’t know what alchemy Mr. Chapman employed, but “Miss Bennet’s” actors are marvels. They set an audience tingling with delight time and again.
Director Carolyn Cook uses set designer Seamus M. Bourne’s big, gorgeous set flawlessly—her actors own the stage. Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes remind one of “Downton Abbey”: need I say more?
It’s a joyous thing when you have to pinch yourself because you can’t believe a play is getting better and better and more irresistible as it goes on; but that’s what happens here. Do not miss “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly.”
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.