Wednesday, December 13, 2017

There's Something About Mary ... Bennet, That Is!

Every year in late November I get the urge to experience a Christmas story that's new to me, so I was excited when I heard that Main Street Theater was staging Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and directed by Claire Hart-Palumbo. Assuming this to be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice (as opposed to a prequel), I knew it would have to be about Mary or Kitty, the only two Miss Bennets remaining after Jane Austen was finished with her story about five sisters in need of at least a couple of husbands.

Given that Kitty Bennet is only slightly less a flibbertigibbet than her sister Lydia, I hoped this play would focus on the middle sister, Mary Bennet, and so it did. The official synopsis of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley reads as follows:
A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bennet is set two years after the novel ends and continues the story, this time with nerdy middle-sister Mary as the unlikely heroine. Mary is growing tired of her role as the dutiful middle sister in the midst of everyone else’s romantic escapades. When the family gathers for Christmas at Pemberley, an unexpected guest sparks Mary’s hopes for independence, an intellectual match, and possibly even love.
Well, there was certainly no way I could resist that, in part because it just so happens I've encountered a rounded-out fictional Mary Bennet once before, in Patrice Sarath's lovely novel The Unexpected Miss Bennet (Berkley, 2011). For those who are unaware, there's an entire literary sub-genre devoted to new stories about the Darcys, the Bingleys, the Dashwoods, and the Knightleys. These "professional fan fiction" stories, if you will, are definitely a mixed bag. Some seem little more than an excuse to use the word "reticule," while others are quite thoughtful examinations of not only Austen's best-loved characters, but also some of her underappreciated ones.

For me, a big part of the fun in seeing this play was comparing these two new versions of Mary. Both are, of course, socially awkward and somewhat prone to lecturing, but in different ways. Sarath's novelized Mary initially clings to moral philosophizing as a way to feel superior, or at least equal, to her prettier, more socially graceful sisters. But Mary has been left behind while her sisters make their way in the world, and she gradually discovers an internal dissatisfaction she didn't know was there. She shocks everyone, including herself, when she agrees to act as a live-in companion to the heiress Anne de Bourgh, a situation that requires living in the lion's den with the Bennet-hating Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that this Mary learns to stand up for herself, and as a result finds love.

The Mary depicted by Gunderson and Melcon, on the other hand, finds love and as a result learns to stand up for herself, with a little help from said love interest. This Mary is pedantic, spouting intellectual esoterica at the drop of a hat, or even offering, quite seriously, to explain how human procreation works when someone makes a small joke about the visibly pregnant Jane. In fact, it could be argued that this Mary might today be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, given her tendency to take every remark literally and her lack of ability to interpret social clues. She is also more sharp-tongued than the original Mary, who may have gently chided the younger Lydia and Kitty from time to time, but not with biting sarcasm. This approach works nicely in the play, however, due to the comedic opportunities it offers.

The de Bourgh family also plays a significant role in both stories. As mentioned, in The Unexpected Miss Bennet, Anne and Lady Catherine, in part at least, provide the means for Mary to find her own path in life. In Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a newly invented (I believe) de Bourgh, Arthur, arrives to take his place as the head of Rosings due to the recent death of Lady Catherine. The formidable lady had wanted her daughter Anne to inherit, but we all know that's not how it worked in those days. Thus Anne, frightened of losing her home and her social standing, interrupts not only the Pemberly Christmas gathering but also Mary and Arthur's budding romance, imperiously announcing that she is to marry Arthur. And while Mary does not become Anne's companion in this story, that position, lying somewhere between friend and servant, does go to someone else in need of breaking away.

In the meantime, the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia, has arrived without her ne'er-do-well husband, Wickham; she pretends to be deliriously happy in marriage, but flirts shamelessly with the naive Arthur just the same. Lizzie and Jane, who actually are truly happy, spend the remainder of the play contemplating ways to help both of their sisters, while the entire cast of characters navigates misunderstandings and comically awkward encounters.

(And in case you're wondering where Kitty is during all this, she's off in London with an aunt and uncle; one of my favorite jokes of the play occurs near the end, when Jane and Lizzie observe that they'll have to bring Kitty up to date on Mary's news, since Kitty has simply been "left out of the whole story.")

Even if you don't consider yourself an Austenite, or don't know the first thing about the Bennet sisters, this play is a charming way to ease into the holiday season. For this production, the cozy venue that is Main Street Theater's Rice Village location sports a single set, the Pemberly drawing room, surrounded by the audience on three sides in riser seats. At the beginning of Act 1, a bare evergreen tree stands in front of the window, prompting every character who enters the room to say some variation on "Lizzie, did you know there's a tree in your drawing room?!" Naturally, the tree doesn't remain bare, making this very much a Christmas celebration for both players and audience.

The performances are as charming and polished as the set. Chaney Moore is simultaneously humorous and sympathetic as Mary, and it's an extra bonus that her version of the character plays the pianoforte brilliantly, since the original Mary was specifically known for her mediocrity in that regard. Having this Mary as a now-accomplished musician shows that she'd been doing a little growing of her own even before meeting her new love interest: the earnest and bumbling Arthur as played by Brock Hatton. The Darcys and the Bingleys are played, respectively, by Laura Kaldis, Spencer Plachy, Heidi Hinkel, and Blake Weir; these characters remain primarily cheerful throughout the show, mixing enjoyable wit into their concern for their loved ones. However, it's the actors playing Anne de Bourgh (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and Lydia Wickham (Skyler Sinclair) who really have a chance to shine. Their roles have the most humor, as Anne pursues Arthur with domineering haughtiness instead of tenderness, while Lydia tries to slink around like a cat and maneuver herself as physically close to Arthur as possible.

So do I prefer one of these two Mary Bennets over the other? No, and that's what makes juxtapositions like this fun -- you don't have to choose if you don't want to, but you still can debate whether the author and playwrights improved upon the original characters, whether the interpretations ring true, and even how you would have done it yourself if you were the one telling Mary Bennet's story. At any rate, I highly recommend both tales of Mary, and the Christmas elements of Gunderson and Melcon's play are a lovely added bonus at this time of year.

[Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is currently running at the Main Street Theater in Rice Village (2540 Times Blvd.). It was originally set to run from November 11 through December 17, 2017, but due to high demand, additional performances have been added as follows: Wednesday, December 20 at 7:30 pm; Thursday, December 21 at 7:30 pm; Friday, December 22 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, December 23 at 7:30 pm. For ticket information, click here.]

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