Nov 25, 2019
by Jeanie K. Smith , San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
How many ways can I say “delightful” and “charming,” or “funny” and “sweet”? All those and all their synonyms apply to the wonderful production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley currently playing at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. A terrific cast and sprightly staging liven up the intimate Condiotti theater, for a thoroughly entertaining show that will put you in the holiday spirit without corn or treacle.
If you’re at all familiar with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you’ll recognize the first two characters we meet in Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s imagined sequel — Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Ilana Niernberger and Matt Cadigan), newly married and now residing on the extensive Darcy estate, blissfully happy after their previously rocky road to romance and marriage. Much to Darcy’s surprise, his wife has installed an actual tree in the drawing room, anticipating Christmas with a new tradition. Jokes abound regarding the tree, as it’s a few years yet before Charles Dickens popularizes the idea in A Christmas Carol.
The Darcys also anticipate the arrival of the Bennet sisters and parents for holiday celebrations— first to come are pregnant Jane (Allie Nordby) and her husband Charles Bingley (Evan Held), with middle sister Mary Bennet (Karina Pugh) in tow. Still-single Mary, bookish and tethered to her pianoforte, appears resigned to spinsterhood although she laments that she never chose that life for herself. Happily married Jane and Elizabeth murmur dissent, but potential mates might be hard to find for one such as Mary.
Mr. Darcy announces he invited a cousin for the holidays, one Arthur de Bourgh (Zane Walters), newly titled heir to the de Bourgh estate after the death of his aunt, Lady Catherine. Darcy hasn’t seen him in years, but wants to welcome him as they’ll now be neighbors. As fate would have it, de Bourgh arrives when no one is around — except Mary. As they discover common interests in books, philosophy, science, maps and music, we can see where this is headed, and it’s all great fun — until obstacles also arrive.
Enter Lydia (Ella Park), younger sister full of flirtatious vigor, who creates quite a mess of the budding romance. And if that weren’t enough, the sudden appearance of Anne de Bourgh (Taylor Diffenderfer), cousin to Arthur and a former would-be fiancee of Darcy’s, throws everything into question with a dramatic ending to Act one.
Great worry — and hilarity — ensues in Act two, as the obstacles must be sorted for our young romance to proceed. No spoilers, except to say that it IS a comedy, and a happy ending might be expected; satisfaction comes with seeing how it’s managed.
Director Sheri Lee Miller nicely matches actors to characters, and the entire ensemble gives excellent portrayals of personalities, not caricatures, keeping it all believable while skillfully delivering the comedy. Pugh as Mary and Park as Lydia are young actresses to watch, and Walters does an exceptional turn as nerdy but heart-filled Arthur; the character’s interpretation here suits the script much better than in other productions I’ve seen.
Attractive period set design by Elizabeth Bazzano transitions prettily from genteel to decorated, and makes good use of the small stage. Costumes by Pamela Johnson say volumes about the various female characters and capture period with verve. Lighting by . Eddy Hansen befits the romantic comedy style of the piece, and Jessica Johnson’s sound design cleverly inserts pianoforte playing.
Do yourself a favor and see this gem this season, with its stunning cast and joyful celebration of the holidays and yes, true love.
By Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
Presented by Spreckels Theatre Company
Through Dec. 15, 2019
Thu Dec. 12 and Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Tickets: $12-26; Senior, student and under-18 discounts
Spreckels Theatre Company
Bette Condiotti Experimental Theatre, Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
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