ORLANDO — It’s the holiday season, you note to yourself, and as you scan the list of theaters in Central Florida, you ask where are the productions of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life to get you into the Christmas season?
But wait — yes, while it’s a tradition to see staged productions of the Charles Dickens classic or the legendary Frank Capra movie, why not start a new tradition altogether as a theater patron? A good start would be to visit the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which this season turned not to Dickens or George Bailey, but to Jane Austin.
And what an inspired choice it was. Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley is a delightful and very funny production where Christmas is the backdrop to Austin’s engaging story. It’s Christmas Eve, and the family is gathering to celebrate the holidays — but the story’s true raison d’etre is love. Yes, there’s love of family, but romantic love doesn’t exactly take a holiday around the holidays. And thanks to three particularly inspired choices in casting, this production left audiences applauding wildly by the end.
What is Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley?
Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon selected the sequel to Pride and Prejudice for this production ideally suited for the holidays. The setting is 1815 in the main drawing room and library at Pemberley, the estate of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, which has a Christmas tree that becomes the topic of some humorous quips indicating that it wasn’t quite the same holiday tradition back then as it is now.
“When my co-author Margot Melcon and I started Miss Bennet, we wanted to create a holiday story for everyone that explores the complexities of family and love,” Gunderson noted during a previous production. “It had to be funny, moving, romantic and smart. It had to be something Jane Austen would approve of.”
They succeeded, and part of the show’s delightful fun is watching middle daughter Mary find something she had been actively searching for: a suitor. Humorously, these were the days when a woman mostly looked forward to finding a husband and getting married (starting her own business and becoming company president apparently wasn’t as high on the list), and those who didn’t by their 30s got labeled the dreaded “spinster.”
And as the play opens, it’s been two years since the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet to Mr. Darcy, and it’s now Christmas Eve as Mary arrives at the estate along with her very pregnant sister, Jane and her husband, Charles Bingley. Mary, who has a passion for music and books, is looking for something more now, and wants to do what life offers well beyond the pages of great literature. Her sisters are dubious that the intellectual-minded Mary can find a husband and get married, but then another guest arrives at the invitation of Mr. Darcy: the bookish and socially quite awkward Lord Arthur deBourgh, owner of the Rosings Park estate. Arthur meets Mary in the library, discovers they both have a passion for books, and before you can say “two nerds in love,” something between them clicks.
But there are also some smart twists in the plot, including the fact that Mary’s youngest sister Lydia also has her eye on Arthur. And a misplaced letter sets all three scrambling with some comedic twists that demonstrate it’s not just the French who can craft a fine farce.
What Makes This Play So Special?
While the play itself is cleverly written, the Shakes has done a masterful job at casting. Kristin Shirilla and Cameron Francis truly shine as Mary and Author, and Francis in particular is hilarious as the man who understands books better than human relationships. And Brandy Bell also delivers more than her share of the play’s joyous moments as Lydia, who stumbles ahead in causing havoc on this Christmas Eve, even though she never really intends to hurt anyone along the way.
As usual, the Orlando Shakes team does an immaculate job creating the setting for Pemberley and in designing those eye-popping costumes, and it’s no surprise that by the time the happy ending arrived, the audience was enthralled.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is being performed now through Dec. 29 at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with 2 p.m. matinees. To learn more or to buy tickets, call 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.