By Charles Brousse
Film and stage adaptations of famous novels like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (P&P) are almost always controversial. Purists lament every departure from the original’s content and/or spirit, and defenders respond that different media require different approaches. For them, as long as some connection with the author’s vision is maintained, just about anything is permissible.
Sequels are different. Reflecting the imaginations of new writers, these often have only a tenuous relationship with the original, even if many of the characters and the ambient setting are carried over. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which is currently on view at the Marin Theatre Company through December 23, falls into the latter category.
Here’s the setup: Two years have passed since “Lizzie” Bennet, now Elizabeth Darcy (Cindy Im) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Joseph Patrick O’Malley), whose tempestuous romance at the heart of Austen’s tale was finally resolved by the ringing of wedding bells. With the exception of the elder Bennets (who, we’re told, are on their way), and Mr. Wickham, Lydia’s (Erika Rankin) husband, all of P&P’s leading characters are present at a holiday gathering hosted by the Darcys at Pemberley, his family’s country estate. All but one of the four sisters are married—Lizzie to Darcy, Jane (Lauren Spencer) to the congenial Charles Bingley (Thomas Gorrebeeck) and Lydia to Wickham, who conspires to be away from his wife on as many “business trips” as he can possibly squeeze in.
The outsider in this group is Mary Bennet (Martha Brigham), whose serious nature, plain appearance and unsuccessful musical efforts made her something of a joke in P&P’s boisterous Bennet household. It is she who Gunderson and Melcon have chosen as the protagonist for their sequel, and the effects of this unlikely choice are apparent in the first moments of the play’s opening scene. Two years of married life have turned the fiercely independent Lizzie and her swaggering would-be lover into placid Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, whose principal accomplishment seems to be that they are among the first on the block to have a German-style indoor Christmas tree. Jane, now Mrs. Charles Bingley, is happily pregnant and Charles is happy just being Charles. Lydia keeps herself busy trying to stay composed as she avoids having to admit that marrying Wickham despite her family’s contrary advice was a bad idea.
Mary is the one who has changed enormously in those 24 months. No longer awkward and retiring, she has blossomed into a well-read, confident young woman. Not only that, she now plays difficult Beethoven compositions on the piano with amazing ease! What she doesn’t have is a suitor who would appreciate her talents, but one soon arrives in the person of Arthur de Bourgh (Adam Magill), nephew of the wealthy Catherine de Bourgh, whose class-based prejudice almost stifled the Lizzie/Darcy romance. Alike in temperament and interests, Arthur and Mary hit it off immediately and—despite the lustful intervention of Arthur’s cousin Anna (Laura Odeh)—you can easily guess the rest.
The positive buzz for Christmas at Pemberley is that Mary’s unexpected emergence demonstrates that women don’t have to be stuck in an inferior role; with brains, perseverance and a little luck they can rise to wherever their talents take them. The irony, though, is that in this case she will reach her goal by marrying a wealthy man. Another selling point is that the Gunderson/Melcor collaboration is a welcome newcomer to the thin inventory of holiday-themed theater, and with that I heartily agree. At the same time, it lacks the electricity that Austen injected into Lizzie and Darcy’s courtship dance in P&P, and Mary’s transformation story is a pale substitute. Meredith McDonough directs.
It remains to be said that Eric Flatmo’s regency-style set design, Callie Floor’s elegant costumes and Paul Toben’s burnished lighting beautifully capture the holiday atmosphere of olde England. Whatever its shortcomings, Christmas at Pemberley is a pleasant two-hour reminder of how great a writer (when she isn’t just a reference point) Jane Austen actually was.
NOW PLAYING: Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 23 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.