Jane Austen’s works appear much more suited to Valentine’s Day rather than Christmas, but Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley features the type of love story one would expect from Austen with a wonderful Christmas background. New Village Arts Theatre’s production of the original comedy-drama sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” is a welcome addition to the holiday selections this December.
The story is set in December 1815 at the grand estate of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Timothy L. Cabal) and his wife Elizabeth (Jessi Little). Elizabeth and her sister Jane (Amara Young) are happily married, but the intelligent and introverted Mary (associate artistic director, Nadia Guevara) still hasn’t found love.
Mary, however, soon falls for Darcy’s awkward and smart cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Carter Piggee). While the two of them start to develop feelings for each other, complications begin to arise because of Mary’s jealous younger married sister Lydia (McKenna Foote), who also happens to like Arthur.
Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s 2016 script is a realistic follow-up to Austen’s classic, rather than a satire or spoof of her world. Outside of an early conversation between Darcy and Elizabeth that relies a little too much on an excessive exposition of the story, the writers’ use of comedic moments, depiction of complicated relationships and conflicts could well have been written by Austen.
Several of the supporting performers portray their parts with the type of intelligent and clever timing that audiences expect from an Austen work.
Despite the fact that some of the British accents are less convincing than others, the ensemble, which uses “colorblind” casting and includes Little, Young, Foote and Sittichai Chaiyahat as Jane’s husband Bingley, brings a sense of fun to the events onstage.
Compared with the other characters, Darcy feels like the person who has changed the most between the two tales. Cabal plays him with wisdom and insight, which wasn’t always expressed by Darcy in the original book.
Of course, the focus is really the love story between Mary and Arthur. Guevara and Piggee share a chemistry that’s delightfully nerdy and romantic. They are charming to watch together, even when various events seem to threaten their happiness. This includes the late arrival of Anne, another guest played by a hilariously egotistical Michelle Marie Trester.
A refreshing aspect about Gunderson and Melcon’s writing is that even the most antagonistic people aren’t irredeemable villains. Both Lydia and Anne, for instance, have moments of sympathy and likability.
Throughout the narrative, artistic director Kristianne Kurner stages the action with an emphasis on romance, humor and the festive sprit. Whether Mary and Arthur are taking part in an intimate conversation, or the Bennet family shares a lively discussion, Kurner keeps theatregoers invested in the proceedings.
Set designer Kurner and costume designer Elisa Benzoni replicate the look of the Regency Era in England, while other artists contribute to the mood of the evening. Melanie Chen Cole’s audio (assisted by music consultant, Nina Gilbert, who also plays “some piano.”) features beautiful instrumental versions of Christmas songs such as “Deck the Halls” and “Carol of the Bells,” while Becky Goodman’s lighting features visual touches that reflect the budding romance of Mary and Arthur.
If you’re looking for a date night Christmas event, or just an enjoyable old-fashioned performance in Carlsbad, Miss Bennet is a great option for a San Diego County yuletide celebration. No need to be a diehard Austen fan to have a good time with the Bennets.