In this new column, theater critic Erin McNeil reviews the Jungle Theater’s production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”
The Jungle Theater is known for balancing their seasons with crowd-pleasers, heady dramas, quirky ensembles and more than a little girl power. “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a riff on “Pride and Prejudice” set two years after Mr. Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, is perfectly at home in this lineup. Centered not on sassy, self-determined Elizabeth but on her oft-maligned, introverted younger sister Mary (Christian Bardin), the play creates space for a different type of heroine; by focusing on Mary instead of Elizabeth, it challenges the notion that we must change ourselves in order to be loved.
Is it a bit shmaltzy? Sure. But it leans in to our current nerdy female fan culture in which millions of young women watch “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” and imagine themselves as Hermione Granger or Bella Swan. As playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon know, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet was the original reader surrogate — witty, detached and misunderstood. By elevating Mary to the role of heroine, Gunderson and Melcon’s “Miss Bennet” gives modern audiences a relatable champion. In 2018, the play was one of the most-produced pieces of theater in the United States.
Those familiar with “Pride and Prejudice” (and its many, many screen adaptations) will slip right into the familial patter and hierarchy of the Bennet sisters. After marrying Mr. Darcy (James Rodríguez), Elizabeth (Sun Mee Chomet) is now the mistress of opulent Pemberley Hall. Jane’s (Roshni Desai) marriage to Mr. Bingley (Jesse Lavercombe) seems precisely as happy as anticipated and they are eagerly expecting their first baby. Lydia (Andrea San Miguel) feigns happiness with her marriage to Mr. Wickham, but her over-the-top giggles and unsettling attentions to the newly rich Arthur de Bourgh (Reese Britts) betray her real circumstances. Her interest in Arthur is shared by Anne de Bourgh (Anne Hickey), but he ultimately ends up with Mary. Much of the play’s charm lies in its ample opportunities for ensemble work, clever one-liners and nostalgic connections both to Jane Austen’s beloved characters and the holiday season.
The central arc of the play is Mary and Arthur’s intellectualized but incredibly sweet courtship. They find in each other learned, kindred spirits. Unable to sugarcoat their observations or blunt their witty remarks, both feel misunderstood and admonished by their families. Kind but socially awkward and slightly mechanical, both gravitate toward the no-nonsense. Bardin and Britts work together exceptionally well, crafting moments of hilarity and tenderness perfectly tailored to Mary and Arthur’s romance. Physical and expressive, both manage to flow effortlessly between comedy and real heart.
Which brings me to my favorite directorial choice by Christina Baldwin: the guttural playfulness embedded in this show. Characters grunt, repeat emphatic gestures, groan and resort to smaller sounds in moments of heightened passion. Perfectly embodied in Anne de Bourgh’s imperious sputtering and Lydia’s incessant squeaking, this hammy use of sound/language functions in two discrete ways. First, it is funny in a very visceral way. Second, and more importantly, its informality highlights the characters’ pleasure in being together, regardless of how exasperating family can be. It’s a lesson uniquely suited for the impending holiday season.
In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth admits that she started loving Mr. Darcy after seeing Pemberley, so questions of money, power and its relationship to happiness and love have always been important to these characters. Mary and others spend so much time in this play encouraging Arthur to take full advantage of his white, male, landed privilege in order to make himself happy. There is something performatively self-sacrificing yet actually self-serving in Mary’s continued persuasions — after all, if Arthur chooses his own happiness, it seems he will also choose her happiness and security.
While this notion fits with the characters and the source material, the playwrights do not grant the same type of agency to Mary as Austen gave to Elizabeth. When Elizabeth (finally) agrees to marry Darcy, he has performed numerous self-improving tasks to win her over; he is the solicitor, she is the decider. By contrast, Mary’s arc exists not in picking Arthur, but in letting herself be vulnerable enough to let him know how she feels about him. While Mary isn’t as compelling a romantic protagonist as Elizabeth —who is? — she is assuredly a different kind of aspirational heroine, one who learns to make her desires and feelings known.
A holiday tradition to rival “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie and British Arrows Awards at the Walker, the Jungle Theater team has created a nostalgic and very funny winner in the continuing adventures of the Bennet sisters.
Erin McNeil is a museum professional, writer and entrepreneur living and working in Minneapolis.