MRT’s ‘Christmas at Pemberley’: Out-Austening Jane

Katie Grindeland, Veronika Duerr, Vichet Chum, Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Jesse Hinson, Victoria Grace, Shawn K. Jain in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.”Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL – Is it possible to out-Jane Austen Jane Austen?

Apparently so. Because, in transferring Austen’s iconic characters from “Pride and Prejudice” to the

stage, the characters have emerged with personas intact, as witty and charming as ever.

The plays of Lauren Gunderson have found an artistic home at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre and with its artistic director, Sean Daniels, and the theater has lovingly crafted productions of such works as “Silent Sky,” a tribute to pioneering female astronomers who never got their due while they were alive.

With “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” Gunderson and co-writer Margot Melcon have taken the characters from Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and projected them forward and the result is great comic fun set among the gentility of the Georgian area.

Austen had few equals when it came to exploring the dynamics of relationships with wit and style and Gunderson and Melcon have carried the torch forward.

There are a passel of sparkling performances but standing atop the pyramid is Amanda Collins as Mary, the bookish, unmarried – hardly a few minutes go by when she isn’t reminded of it – middle sister of the Bennet family, which numbers five women strong: lovely Jane; clever Elizabeth; Mary; the immature Kitty (not portrayed here) and the “wild child,” Lydia.

Shawn Jain, Vichet Chum and Jesse Hinson in “Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo: Meaghan Moore.

The hosts of the Pemberley Estate, where the sequel takes place in 1815, are Elizabeth Darcy (Alexis Bronkovic) and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Jesse Hinson),who are are expecting visitors for the holiday: Elizabeth’s pregnant sister Jane Bingley (Victoria Grace) and her husband Charles Bingley (Shawn K. Jain); youngest sister Lydia Wickham (Katie Grindeland), married but not happy and decidedly in the market.

Her sparring partner – at various times, every member of the cast serves as a sparring partner – is the newly-minted member of the landed gentry, Arthur de Bourg (Vichet Chum) fresh from his studies at Oxford upon the death of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and by British law the heir of the de Bourgh’s Rosings Park estate.

The Darcy’s Christmas tree is the source of recurring humor as Jane defends against all comers her decision – “a German tradition”– to bring the spruce indoors.

The playwrights and Collins have invested Mary with a keen intellect and rapier wit, which she is willing to share with anyone willing no take her on.

The humor. Ah, the humor The bon mots fairly fly from Mary’s mouth, ever faster and with more fury when she believes herself humiliated in her aborted relationship with Arthur.

Mary and Arthur are both curious in the same ways and in thrall with one another, but Arthur’s stops and starts towards cementing the relationship are bespoiled by Katie Grindeland’s Lydia, who is ferociously flirtatious – if there can be such a thing – and at one point the beleaguered Arthur is forced to defend his honor with a chair from her advances.

Lydia’s decision to set her sails on Arthur is one of several complications arising, including the arrival of another member of the de Bourgh line, Anne de Bourgh (Veronika Duerr), with a claim to Arthur; together they are roadblocks that have to be removed if Mary and Arthur are to have their happy ending.

When things go south Mary proceeds to the pianoforte, where she pounds out musical passages that are as dour and mournful as her mood. When asked by Jane if she is upset, she responds: “I am not upset. Beethoven is upset.”

Daniels, aided by associate director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, has directed his pitch-perfect cast with aplomb and style.

The production values are just as strong as the work of the cast, and Daniels has employed a team familiar with the space.

Set designer James J. Fenton (“Silent Sky”) has fashioned the library and grand drawing room of the Pemberley estate , festooning the walls with text from a scientific volume of the day; add the towering but much-abused live Christmas tree.

Linda Ross’s sumptuous costumes add add to the period atmosphere, aided by Brian J. Lillenthal’s lighting and David Remedios’ sound design.

“Christmas at Pemberley” is the rarest of breeds, a successful sequel from a work born on the printed page and transferred seamlessly to stage, a work of many small pleasures, elegantly designed, directed, acted and presented for your holiday pleasure.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Miss Bennet: A Christmas at Pemberley.” Directed by Sean Daniels. Associate director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Set design by James J. Fenton. Costume design by Linda Ross. Lighting design by Brian J. Lillenthal. Sound design by David Remedios. At the Merrimack Repertory Company through Dec. 23.

Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Katie Grindeland and Victoria Grace. Photo by Meghan Moore