'Pemberley' brings a fabulous second take on a holiday favorite

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 1/26/23

The holiday season has passed, but there is still time to see the final performances of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," now running at Old Academy Players.

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'Pemberley' brings a fabulous second take on a holiday favorite


The holiday season has passed, but there is still time to see the final performances of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," now running at Old Academy Players. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon create a unique Christmas tale based on "Pride and Prejudice," Jane Austen's seminal novel. 

Like the original, "Miss Bennet" is a domestic drama which quietly rebels against male domination. It is 1815 and Austen's heroine Elizabeth is now happily married. The focus of the story shifts to her unstylish middle sister, Mary, who reads books and plays piano but has little hope of landing a husband. 

Zoe Bentley captures Mary's distress. Mary genuinely loves Beethoven and learning. She also loves to study the atlas because she so yearns to be out in the world. Much of the time Mary sports a dour, critical wit. But on occasion, this defense breaks down, and Bentley's face quivers with a passion Mary cannot express.

Her world changes when Lord Arthur De Bourg arrives to spend Christmas with the Bennets. Brendan Sterling plays the role with fine comic feeling. Arthur is just like Mary, an awkward man who loves learning and lacks social grace. You see where this is going and feel happy for both, but farcical obstacles interfere with the budding romance.

"Miss Bennet" is true to Austen's feminism. This is England in the 1800s, and a woman's best shot at worldly happiness was to marry well. (Austen herself turned down the chance to move her family out of poverty when she refused a wealthy suitor because she could not love him.) 

If you saw the Stagecrafters production of "Miss Bennet" this past December you are in for a surprise. It is the same story with the same characters and the same dialogue. But the production values are so different it is like you are watching two different shows. 

The one at Stagecrafters was a visual spectacle, full of colorful costumes and furnishings. Large latticed windows gave you a vivid, almost 3-D glimpse of the snowy estate; dramatic use of  lights during empty stage moments created a sense of awe and mystery. Yet the action felt stilted. The drama lurched from scene to scene because a few of the actors could not inhabit their roles.

I did not fully realize this until I saw the Old Academy show. There are eight characters in "Miss Bennet," and in Jane Austen's world there is no such thing as a minor character. Everyone is consequential. When a character does not come across, it punctures dramatic tension and the story feels staged. There are no weak sisters in director Jane Jennings' cast at Old Academy.

While Samantha Simpson (Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy), Ben Kunkle (Mr. Darcy), Rachel Dalton (Mrs. Jane Bingley) and Matthew Thompson (Mr. Bingley) all play happily married people, each character has a distinct persona. Ben Kunkle, for example, is now a benign patriarch – presumably reformed by his comeuppance experience in "Pride and Prejudice" two years before.

To win happiness, Mary has to overcome the interference of sister Lydia (Julie Hadsell), and Anne De Bourg (Samantha Solar). Both want to use Arthur for their own purposes. These “minor characters" are more than nemeses. Hadsell and Solar light up the stage with comical conniving. 

They serve another purpose. We learn they behave so poorly because they, too, are victims of patriarchy. The family at Pemberley handle them with a forgiving understanding so apt for the holiday season, and the satisfying ending helps explain why "Miss Bennet" is fast becoming a staple of our Christmastime stories. 

Old Academy is located at 3540 Indian Queen Lane. "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" will run through Sunday. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.