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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
City Lights Theatre Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


James Lewis and Melinda Marks
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
Two years have passed since the five sisters of the Longbourn estate traversed many complicated webs and winding routes to land husbands in Jane Austen's much beloved Pride and Prejudice. That is, all are now wedded except the middle, rather odd-one-out sister Mary, who has remained at the family estate alone—supposedly in spinster bliss with her cherished library of books and parlor with piano. But as the extended family of sisters and husbands now gathers in 1815 for Christmas at the ancestral estate of Elizabeth's husband Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mary declares to her siblings, "I don't recall ever being asked if this is the life I wanted."

When Mr. Darcy's bumbling, bookworm of a cousin, Lord Arthur de Bourgh, suddenly arrives—reluctantly pried away from his Oxford studies to take over his own inherited estate—he too admits, "This is not the life of my choosing." And so is set up by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon the perfect beginnings for a sequel to Jane Austen's masterpiece. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is an almost sure-fire guarantee to produce broad smiles, warm every heart, and even elicit a happy tear or two, especially as currently produced in delightful fashion by City Lights Theatre Company.

As the sisters arrive, there is much bustling about, raised-eye gossip, rib-poking teasing, and known-hot-button pushing. However, the audience's interest quickly focuses on the very exacting, rather blunt Mary who is quick to correct others with facts they do not know and do not care to know. As her sister Elizabeth points out after Mary chides their youngest sister Lydia for one of the many faults that Mary sees in her, "You made your point but you missed your tact."

Melinda Marks is nothing short of terrific as the old maid (at the ripe age of twenty-five) sister who is much more comfortable reading and conversing about the latest scientific findings than she is chatting with her teeheeing sisters about husbands or the impending motherhood of one of them (Jane). Mary's drab dress of brown, her rumpled hair, and her glasses perched on nose's edge are in great contrast to the sisters' lighter looks of flowing curls and pastel colors. Ms. Marks' expressions fill a volume in telling just how much Mary feels apart and foreign amongst the constant, rather mindless chatter.

But when Mr. Darcy's cousin, Mr. Arthur de Bourgh, arrives (or rather awkwardly stumbles) into the setting with his own thick glasses and carrying a Philosophie Zoologique by Jean-Baptiste Lamark much like the one sitting on Mary's desk, something subtly happens in stony Mary's countenance. As he and she quickly begin discussing in panting excitement about recent discoveries concerning "paramecia," Mary's thick cocoon of defense against conversation with others begins to break open.

As Arthur, James Lewis pairs with Ms. Marks as the perfect partner in a silly but totally satisfying dance toward what we all know will be an eventual proposal of marriage. That Mary and Arthur's road to matrimony will not be a smooth one or without roadblocks and detours is of course expected and will make the journey for all of us in the audience much more enjoyable than it will be for them. Our joy will come in watching this wonderfully matched duo stumble along with increasing bliss and yet with much blunder toward a life of exploring the world together as they "travel on the page and in ink" through their mutual love of maps.

Much of the fun in the journey also comes from the family around them, of course. Laura Domingo is the elder and hosting sister, Elizabeth Darcy, who has introduced a German tradition into her home, the Christmas tree (beginning what will become a running joke of sorts that begins to run its course for any additional laughs by the time the last guest finally arrives). Her Elizabeth is syrupy sweet and exceedingly bubbly, matched and exceeded only by the very pregnant Jane Bingley (Brooke Silva), sister number two in the line of five.

But both tittering sisters quickly become intellectual giants full of maturity when the youngest sister, Lydia Wickham, arrives. Played deliciously and diabolically by Tonya Duncan, Lydia finds every chance she can to insult and jab the plain, brainy, and (in Lydia's eyes) very dull and boring Mary. When the still-single and now-rich Arthur arrives, the married Lydia does not even try to hide her obsessive pining over him, flirting to no end—much to his evident disgust that totally goes over her always-bouncing head of curls. Ms. Duncan scores a major hit in her jocular portrayal of Lydia.

A couple of the best scenes of this innocuous and often silly period drama occur when the two husbands, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Charles Bingley, attempt to advise Arthur how to win Mary's hand. Jeremy Ryan and Keenan Flagg respectively play the two gentlemen of means who have little to do but leisure themselves and stay out of the way of their wives' reunion but who jump at the chance to instruct Arthur in all their acquired knowledge about reaching the marriage altar successfully.

Much of the jollity of Virginia Drake's direction of this family outing at Pemberley comes as the play's scenes change from one to the other. Silent sequences occur under slightly dimmed lights, with residents and guests coming and going, and entire vignettes quickly occurring. Arturo Dirzo and Charnneé Young play out an unspoken script of their own as the two Pemberley servants—enough so that in the final bows of the evening, they are the last two actors to be recognized with much deserved audience applause.

Ron Gasparinetti has created the parlor and library of Pemberley that serves its purpose well enough but lacks some of the touches that would make the early 19th century English estate a bit more believable (like candles for lighting). Costumes by Patricia Tyler are also a bit underwhelming in the beginning (especially for the women) but take on more of the landed gentry look as the play progresses. Wonderfully produced music and sound has been designed and flawlessly executed by George Psarras, especially when it comes to each time Mary sits to play the piano.

There is much to like in the script by Laura Gunderson and Margot Melcon if one is looking for a light, pre-holiday diversion. The director and cast of this City Lights production sparkle and glow in their evident joy in producing the play. It would take a Scrooge not to walk out of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley thoroughly pleased and ready to wish everyone met, "Happy Holidays."

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues through December 17, 2017, at City Lights Theatre Company 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at cltc.org/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.


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