Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley gives lighthearted laughs and little substance
The audience is first greeted with a few chairs and a direct address before being plunged directly into a world of rich color, light laughter, and little else. The stage is set on the library at Pemberley on December 22, 1815, two years after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We take the point of view of the middle sister, Mary.
Our story focuses on four sisters. Jane, the eldest sister, and her husband Mr. Bingley are expecting their first child. Elizabeth “Lizzy” Darcy, the second eldest, and her husband Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy host her other sisters at their estate, Pemberly. Lydia, the youngest and most talkative and energetic sister, is unhappily married to officer Geroge Wickham, though she continually claims she is happy.
Mary is, in every meaning of the word, abrasive, from her opening letter waxing whether she “can live a large life in mind alone?” to her aggressive correction of her sisters. Even her choice of musical instrument, piano, is played forte, loud. Despite her introduction the audience begins to question the ways in which Mary lives, what it means that she’s single, especially in her era. The things you are currently wondering about this character are beyond the scope of this play. The questions Mary asks herself, and the audience is encouraged to ask, sets up an interesting premise that both quickly and simply turns to misunderstanding, farce, and the marriage plot.
Not that these tropes cannot be interesting, but Miss Bennet became beyond predictable. Mr. Darcy’s Aunt, Catherine de Bourgh has just died leaving the estate to her other nephew, Mr. Arthur de Bourgh, who is now Lord de Bourgh. De Bourgh is a dedicated student who spends much of his time in the library at Oxford. Anne, Catherine’s daughter, received a large portion of the fortune but no part of the estate, following inheritance laws. After a brief scene involving surprise over the new trend imported from Germany of the Christmas tree, Mr. Darcy surprises Lizzy telling her he has invited Lord de Bourgh.
A tall, awkward man, Lord de Bourgh enters the house searching for Mr. Darcy and instead runs into Mary where they immediately bond over maps and Jean Lamarck’s theories of evolution. Their budding love is immediately clear. Lydia, however, finally arrives at the party and takes an immediate interest in Lord de Bourgh. Clearly her marriage is as enjoyable as understanding the relationships within the play, Lydia, Mary, and de Bourgh enter a farcical sequence of exchanging notes that goes slightly awry. As the first act comes to a close, the situation is resolved as Lydia realizes her intrusion and quickly supports Mary and Lord de Bourgh’s love.
The act actually ends, however, with the wonderfully surprising entrance of Anne de Bourgh exclaiming that her and Lord de Bourgh are engaged and that they are leaving for their estate. This is the best moment in the play. As the news is broken, Jane, Lydia, and Lizzy burst out of the door and fall to the ground. The lights went down with everyone’s jaw.
The second act follows with all of the sisters, and their husbands trying to break up Anne and get Mary and de Bourgh back together. De Bourgh has acquiesced to his cousin’s demand, and Mary believes their marriage is equally impossible. Mary is rather upset and refuses to have a conversation with de Bourgh. Finally, the others bring them together and get de Bourgh to confess his love and to offer Anne the possibility of staying at and managing their estate for the rest of her life. Everything ends happily, even for Anne as she becomes friends with Lydia.
The play is light-hearted fun. The dialogue is witty and sharp, particularly Mary’s biting quips to the detriment to her interlocutors. The audience certainly laughed throughout the play. The audience’s enjoyment was certainly heightened by how clearly the cast enjoyed their work and each other. The interactions between the characters feel warmly of people who enjoy each other’s company. The sisters keep track of each other with vigor beyond being that of actors being paid. Their love story is certainly adorable, and this love between two awkward intellectuals is certainly compelling for Reedies.
The play, however, proves little more than fun. The new Christmas tree often evokes contemplation about the ethics of cutting down a strong, living tree and letting it slowly die inside. This is rarely mentioned in any other serious way, even though it could have been set up very easily as a symbol to mirror the wedding of two budding intellectuals. Arthur de Bourgh is clearly the evergreen tree, prospering at Oxford, now reluctantly in charge of his estate.
Likewise, Mary’s opening question is rather unsatisfactorily answered with her chance at love and marriage. There are often remarks on gender politics, specifically because de Bourgh and Mary only really differ in the possibilities open to them. De Bourgh is the owner of a grand estate and is capable of traveling the world; however, he only wants to stay at Oxford. Mary is trapped dutifly taking care of her parents, longing to travel the world. This causes some conflict, but, again, it is never seriously engaged with except to add some tension and gain some laughs.
Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley had the opportunity to be a thoughtful and enjoyable play, but it, unfortunately, missed the mark and simply remains lightly enjoyable. Miss Bennet will run until December 29.