Capital Stage’s New Holiday Play is Great Theater

If you are a fan of Jane Austen and have a special fondness for “Pride and Prejudice,” the current production at Capital Stage should be a must for you.  “Miss Bennet: Christmas as Pemberley” is a perfect Christmas play and a perfect sequel to the story of the Bennet sisters that was introduced in Austen’s much-beloved novel.  And the Cap Stage production, expertly directed by Peter Mohrmann, and with an excellent eight-member cast, beautifully delivers the continuing saga told in this sequel.

The play is the creation of playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon.  Ms. Gunderson has the honor of being the most-produced living playwright in America for the current theater season.  She has penned 20 plays and is still only 35 years old.  She and Ms. Melcon reportedly drafted “Miss Bennet” on a six-hour drive from San Francisco to Ashland, Oregon.  The play had a rolling world premiere last year during the holidays, and it has been highly praised and well-received wherever it has been produced.  And now Sacramento can be added to that list, as the play should be exceedingly popular here, perhaps even becoming a perennial in local theaters after this four week run.

The original story, for those who are unfamiliar with it or who, like me, read the novel decades ago, primarily concerns Lizzy, the second eldest of the five Bennet sisters, whose pride and prejudice almost destroy her chance for romance and marriage before a series of Austenesque coincidences set things right and reveal to her the true worth of her ultimate mate, Mr. Darcy.  Along the way, the oldest Bennet sister, Jane, finds love in the person of Charles Bingley, and the novel ends happily with the marriage of both couples.

(I must digress here to say that “Pride and Prejudice” is a great book that is worth a read or a re-read at any point in life.  As I mentioned, I read it in high school, dreading the assignment at first, but absolutely enchanted by the book by the time I had completed it.  It has stayed with me for all the years since, in both my head and my heart.)

“Miss Bennet” opens with the two couples uniting in the drawing room of the Darcy’s mansion.  Also with them, visiting for the holidays, is the third of the sisters, Mary.  She remains unmarried and happily so, or so it would appear.  Mary, you see, is the introverted Bennet sister, the book lover who also excels at pianoforte, which she practices daily.  If pride and prejudice describe Lizzy, prim and proper is how Mary appears.  She suffers social banter and mundane trivia greatly, being far happier with a good book or an atlas of maps than with the idle companionship of a forced interpersonal relationship.  She is not so much standoffish as she is disinterested, albeit the two traits can be indistinguishable to those observing the person.

In any event, it is in this state that we find Mary Bennet as her sisters and their husbands arrive at Pemberley to celebrate the Christmas holiday together.  Another sister, Liddy (the fourth of the five) subsequently arrives, she without her husband.  Their marriage, also consummated in the original novel, has not gone well, and despite her outwardly upbeat attitude, it soon becomes apparent that she is far less happy than she appears.  Also soon to arrive at the estate is Arthur de Bourgh, an old friend of Darcy’s, who has recently become a wealthy estate owner by virtue of the death of his aunt.

Arthur is a perfect match for Mary, if perfection in a relationship is measured by similar interests and desires.  The attraction between the two is quickly established as they are both reading the same book on metaphysics.  The story could end there (and the play would then be a very short one-act) but, of course, in true Austen fashion, complications develop.  And there I will leave the story-telling, for how the complications are resolved is the real joy of this wonderful confection.  (Suffice it to say, I chuckled and teared up; the play is loaded with witty dialogue, and the story’s resolution is touchingly poignant.)

Mr. Mohrmann’s excellent cast, a true ensemble, is led by Elyse Sharp as Mary and Aaron Kitchin as Arthur.  Both characters are recessive personalities, but the actors convey their characters’ reserve powerfully.  They quickly become the center of audience attention, even as the other family members have more lines and are given more time to fret and plot and otherwise devise ways to bring the two together.  Ms. Sharp grows into her role over the course of the play, which is another way of saying that she reflects Mary’s growth as a fully realized woman.  Mr. Kitchin similarly turns his character from a caricature to a real-life young adult who struggles with his own fears and uncertainties.

The rest of the cast is equally strong.  Brittni Barger recalls a young Katherine Hepburn (more so than a staid Greer Garson) as Lizzy, and J.R. Yancher is the warmer version of Laurence Olivier as Darcy.  Both are excellent as the linchpins of the gathering.  Andrea J. Love and Kevin Gish play the other married couple.  Her character is pregnant and near term; his is an overly excited father-to-be.  Both project their love and anticipation in full measure.

Rounding out the cast are Sarah Brazier as the younger sister, Lydia (the fifth Bennet sister, Kitty, is travelling abroad in this tale and thus is never seen), and Lyndsy Kail as Mr. de Bourgh’s cousin.  Ms. Brazier provides comic relief with an over-the-top performance that is just right for her character, and Ms. Kail captures the effete snobbishness of her character with just the right mix of nastiness and egotism as the role requires.

The production is immensely aided by a set design (by Eric Broadwater) that makes Pemberley in 1815 look just like it must have then, right down to the Christmas tree that Lizzy shockingly has placed in the middle of the family room.  (The Christmas tree concept, according to the script, was unheard of in England at that time.)  Also noteworthy are the period costumes (exquisitely designed in intimate detail by Maggie Morgan) and the sound design (by the always impressive Ed Lee) that for this show features the piano etudes Ms. Austen herself played in her day (heavy on Beethoven’s sonatas).  One of the wonders of the production is how perfectly timed the recorded piano playing is with Ms. Sharp’s appearance of playing in those scenes where she takes to the instrument.  You expect nothing less in a professional production, but it is no less impressive where it works perfectly each time.

“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is unusual fare for Capital Stage.  It contains no cursing, no faux sex, no violence, no deep-thought message or avant garde conceits, indeed, nothing for which the company has built its brand and reputation, other than the very high quality of the production.  That it is delivered lovingly and with a spirit that is very much, well, Christmas, and that it is, after all, a sequel that I’m convinced Jane Austen would have endorsed, are reasons to see it.  That it will make you feel the joy of the season is just icing on the cake.