SKOKIE, Ill.—It’s hard to imagine the now ubiquitous Christmas tree as ever being new. But the quaint German custom of bringing a tree into the house and dressing it was once as strange and disconcerting to the English as the startling moment when you see yourself, suddenly, through a stranger’s eyes.
The Christmas tree stands center-stage throughout “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” It’s a reminder that there are always fresh beginnings, that joy is a possibility, and that we needn’t be limited by how our families have viewed us, especially after we glimpse ourselves afresh.
The play centers on a family well-known to Jane Austin fans. Joining Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Alex Goodrich) and his wife Elizabeth (Samantha Beach) a few days before Christmas at the Pemberley estate are three of Elizabeth’s four sisters. Jane Bingley (Aila Peck), now expecting and accompanied by her doting and playful husband Charles (Tosin Morohunfola); younger sister Lydia (Jennifer Latimore), decidedly without her husband Mr. Wickham; and then there is the unmarried middle sister, Mary Bennet (Emily Berman).
Mary has become wonderfully proficient at the piano since her sisters left to establish their own homes. She has otherwise devoted herself to studies, ranging from philosophy to biology. She’s aghast when the “out of place and overdressed” tree, as Mr. Darcy calls it, is termed a fir, instead of a spruce.
Mary has grown up with pretty sisters, ones who better her at the social graces—the amiable Jane, the flirty Lydia, and the exuberant and confident Elizabeth. Forgotten, overlooked, or just plain discounted, she suspects everyone thinks she will spend her life caring for her parents. She yearns to step out from behind a book and into the “shock and wonder” of life.
But Mary just doesn’t have her family’s gift for being amused or amusing.
Entering the mix is Mr. Darcy’s cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Erik Hellman), an Oxford student who has recently had greatness thrust upon him. His aunt has died, leaving him a vast estate and the rank of a lord.
Even the thought of managing an estate vexes the sheltered young man who’s more comfortable with books than with companions able to respond.
Arthur and Mary soon discover that they enjoy the same book and know the same minutia. He finds her amusing; she finds him her equal in intelligence. Given their small circle of acquaintances, this meeting is a miraculous boon to both. Is the once unthinkable possible—romance?
Regency Era complications ensue, like love letters landing in the wrong hands and an unexpected fiancée, the overpowering Anne de Bourgh (Bri Sudia), showing up. But, of course, in a witty comedy, things right themselves eventually, and, the family, literally and emotionally, gather together, as they should in any story written expressly for the holiday season.
Nice touches abound in Northlight’s charming production, intensifying the differences between the new couple and the rest of the household. Under Jessica Thebus’s direction, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley stand as near twins in civility and grace as opposed to Arthur’s four-syllable words and physical stumbles. And the gorgeous gowns by Melissa Torchia heighten the similarity of the married sisters against the at-first drab Mary, and then later their pastels contrast her vibrancy.
But the production could have easily gone other directions. This imagined sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” co-written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, gives plenty of other ideas to think about: Should family intervention be called meddling or a willingness to extend in the best interest of all involved? Do we deserve the fortune of having a choice if we are too afraid to make one? Do we become a true part of our families only after we first accept ourselves?
And, of course, does it take someone seeing us to be miraculous for us to see the wonder of life?
These questions and themes ensure that this world premiere will have another go somewhere else. As for this endeavor, true fans of Austen’s work will feel at home with the witty banter and will relish character reactions that refer to bits of story or characters in the original.
But for those new to this world, this sequel has everything needed to stand alone, and may just entice the viewer to find a library nook and sit down with its precursor.
‘Mary Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Illinois
Tickets: 847-673-6300 or Northlight.org
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Closes: Dec. 24