Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is quickly becoming a holiday theater staple. Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon in 2017, the show had a major production at Bethesda, Maryland’s Round House Theatre a few years ago. It is now back in the area with Montgomery Playhouse’s production at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn through December 10.
Fans of Jane Austen will immediately prick up their ears when they hear “Miss Bennet,” but the first thing you need to know about Christmas at Pemberley is that the Miss Bennet in question is not Elizabeth Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice fame, but her oft-overlooked middle sister Mary.
Playwright Gunderson is known for crafting plays about female historical figures whose accomplishments have been undervalued because of their gender. For Christmas at Pemberley, Gunderson sets her sights on a fictional character who was similarly “underwritten.” In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Jane, the two older sisters, are mature characters sketched out in detail by Austen. The two youngest sisters, Lydia and Kitty, were tempestuous, immature, and prone to embarrassing the family. In the middle there was Mary, whom Austen describes as “the only plain one in the family,” and possessing “a pedantic air.”
Gunderson and Melcon have given Mary a new lease on life, and matrimony, in Christmas at Pemberly. The play takes place a few years after the events in Pride and Prejudice which culminated with Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Darcy. The play is set at the Darcys’ country estate, Pemberley, where four of the Bennet sisters reunite for Christmas and where Mary finally, after centuries of neglect, finds a very Austen-like romance.
Jennifer Georgia is the mastermind behind this lovely production. Georgia, a recent WATCH Award winner, designed the costumes and set. She also directed the production, pulling together a group of mostly novice performers into a cohesive Regency-era story that was as charming as it was entertaining.
As set designer, Georgia crafted elegant canvas panels to look like Regency-era bookshelves and wall coverings with fine detailing. Parlor furniture befitting the Regency era (1795–1837) formed the center of the play’s action while a large Christmas tree (apparently a novelty in Regency England and the subject of many of the play’s jokes) rose at the rear of the stage. As costume designer, Georgia compiled an assortment of lovely Regency-era dresses denoting the different attitudes and financial circumstances of the show’s five female characters. Elizabeth Darcy, as the most established married woman in the group had the finest dress whereas Lydia, the young, flamboyant sister living in poverty, showed her circumstances through a dress made of cheap white cloth festooned with gaudy red trim and feathers.
The two leads, Meredith Iodice as Mary Bennet and Taylor Peppers as Lord Arthur de Bourgh (the love interest), gave nuanced and mature performances that grounded the show. I did wish that the instant connection between the two had been more clearly enunciated in their first scene together, but by the time we reached the predictably happy ending, I was rooting for them to get together. Iodice in particular, who credits this as her first performance outside of high school or college productions, is endearing and believable.
Many of the other performers in the show are relatively new to community theater. Some of the performances were exaggerated in a way that distracted from the show’s storyline and a few of the character choices didn’t seem to sync with my recollection of Pride and Prejudice. In Gunderson and Melcon’s script, many allusions are made to Elizabeth (Aparna Sri) and Mr. Darcy’s (Gary Brick) apparently lusty sex life. These jokes just came across as awkward in this production, and the Elizabeth Darcy portrayed here was a surprising departure from the original. It is unclear, however, if those choices were inherent in the script, the performances or the direction.
The cast is rounded out by Jay Thaiyod as the very pregnant Jane Bingley, John Rocco as her husband Charles Bingley, Carolos Espinoza as the Footman, and Jenn Robinson as the enjoyably haughty Anne de Bourgh.
Nadia Palacios as the flamboyant Lydia Wickham shows promise as a comedic actor. In the supporting role of the Butler, Steve Kaufman elicits laughs throughout the show for the many ways he defies convention when the family’s back is turned.
All in all, this production is a charming option for your holiday viewing. It’s appropriate for all ages, and although prior familiarity with Pride and Prejudice will deepen your understanding of the show, it is not required.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley plays through December 10, 2023, presented by Arts on the Green in partnership with the Montgomery Playhouse performing at Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets ($22; $20, students 15–21; $15, youth 14 & under), buy them at the door, or purchase them online.
Recommended for ages 12 & up.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.