Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has sold over 20 million copies since its publication in 1813. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s work is being produced more than that of any other living American writer right now. Sometimes, there is justice in the world and very good things also become very popular. The same might be said of Christmas.
The most hardened of holiday cynics might find their hearts melted by Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Gunderson’s brilliant 2016 play, co-written with Margot Melcon, is now onstage at the Jungle Theater in a production full of sheer delight from beginning to end.
The play finds Elizabeth Darcy (Sun Mee Chomet), née Bennet, happily ensconced at the Pemberley estate with her laconic new husband (James Rodríguez). As Elizabeth’s sisters come to stay for the holiday, the story comes to focus on Mary (Christian Bardin), the family’s bookish laughingstock. In a neat twist, Gunderson and Melcon elevate the introverted qualities that made Mary a peripheral player in the novel, striking a righteous blow for patience and curiosity.
Having become resigned to spinsterhood, Mary is surprised to find herself swooning at Arthur de Bourgh (JuCoby Johnson), a kindred spirit (and newly invented character) who’s inherited the estate of the novel’s late and largely un-mourned Lady Catherine. Anne (Anna Hickey, marvelous), the daughter of Lady Catherine, has other ideas about how Arthur might be most suitably matched.
While you don’t need to know the original story to follow the new one, the show so richly channels Austen’s spirit that the book’s many fans will find themselves chortling with recognition. Miss Bennet affectionately nods to the boyish enthusiasm of Darcy’s friend Bingley (Sam Bardwell), the preternatural perfection of Jane (Adia Morris), and the incorrigible flirtatiousness of Lydia (Kelsey Didion).
Under the direction of Christina Baldwin, the sterling cast members give performances rich in detail and humanity. Bardin’s Mary is completely recognizable yet newly endearing, with her lovably awkward attempts at a self-deprecating smile. Johnson strikes an exquisitely Austenian tone of dignified infatuation, struggling to communicate his feelings to Mary while dodging Lydia’s inappropriate advances.
The four characters who led the plot of Pride gamely recede into the background, nodding to their shared past and conspiring to help Mary’s story end as happily as theirs did. Becca Hart and Guillermo Rodriguez Zermeño play servants who chime in with song, occasioning chuckles for those who recognize the running gag regarding Mary’s spotty singing voice.
Using this superb script as a basis, the Jungle team has crafted an exuberant, intelligent production that glows with the spirit of the season.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-822-7063; through December 30