Pioneer Theatre’s “Miss Bennet” makes a heartwarming holiday treat

Wed Dec 05, 2018 at 12:56 pm
By Edward Reichel

Elizabeth Ramos as Mary and Jamen Nanthakumar as Arthur in “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: BW Productions

Fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have no reason not to fall in love with Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. The new play, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, currently running at Pioneer Theatre Company, picks up where Austen’s novel ends.

The story takes place at Christmas in 1815, not too long after Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth has invited three of her sisters, Mary Bennet, Jane Bingley and Lydia Wickham, along with Jane’s husband Charles Bingley, to spend the holiday at Pemberley. After Elizabeth tells Darcy that they’ll have company, he informs his wife that he has invited a distant relation, Arthur de Bourgh, to join them for Christmas as well.

In the hands of playwrights Gunderson and Melcon, the story focuses on middle sister Mary, who laments her fate—being the middle sister and unmarried, she is expected to look after the siblings’ aging parents. Mary is more or less resigned to that. Being a bookworm and not deft at clever bon mots she realizes that she probably will never find a man interested in her.

That changes abruptly when Arthur shows up. He is equally engrossed in reading and studying, and the two hit it off immediately. Having never experienced love, they awkwardly tiptoe around the subject, not knowing what to do or how to express themselves.

Gunderson and Melcon have written a sparkling and witty play that captures the spirit and essence of Pride and Prejudice. And to their credit, it’s not necessary to know the novel to understand and appreciate the play. 

Pioneer Theatre has assembled a wonderful cast of actors who bring these well-known and well-loved characters to life.

The standouts at Tuesday’s performance were Elizabeth Ramos as Mary and Jamen Nanthakumar as Arthur. Their interactions with one another—from their first encounter, when they discover they have books and learning in common, to their clumsy attempts at declaring their love for one another — were a joy to watch. 

Ramos and Nanthakumar brought out the innocence of their feelings for each other quite well. And Ramos underscored her character’s personal growth in the period between the end of the novel and the start of the play effectively and convincingly in her commanding performance.

Emily Nash, a senior at the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program, was a delight as older sister Elizabeth. When the play begins, Elizabeth is quite content with being married and being the lady of the manor. She is still free-spirited and somewhat unconventional but not to the point of being liberated. Nash portrayed Elizabeth with subtle gestures and expressions that brought depth to her characterization.

Rachel Clausen as Jane and Jessica Naimy as Lydia were equally impressive. Jane, who is pregnant, is eminently happy being married to Charles, and Clausen conveyed here serenity with finely honed expression.

Naimy almost stole the show as the flirty younger sister. As the play unfolds, the sisters find out that Lydia is immensely unhappy in her marriage. Divorce is out of the question, however, so Lydia amuses herself with teasing men. She latches on to Arthur who is uncomfortable with her attentions. Naimy truly made the most of her character and made Lydia very believable.

Greg Balla as Darcy, and Logan James Hall as Charles Bingley, were perfectly matched. They gave strong performances that captured their characters’ outlook on life and marriage.

One of the most delightful scenes in the play is when Arthur talks to them about how he feels towards Mary, and the men assure him that it is love that he’s feeling. They give him what they think is good advice on how to proceed in wooing Mary, but after Arthur leaves, Darcy and Bingley search out their wives for help.

In the small role of Anne de Bourgh, who shows up at Pemberley to take Arthur back to his estate so they can plan their wedding (which comes as a complete surprise to Arthur) is Savannah Moffat. Also a senior at the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program, Moffat was wonderful as the haughty and prideful Anne, who thinks of nothing but her position in society and for whom love is just found in novels and not in real life.

Lauren Helpern and Susan Branch Towne recreate the atmosphere of early 19th century England with their beautiful and rich scenic and costume designs, respectively. And director Julie Kramer’s pacing moves the story along at a good clip, with seamless scene changes.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs through December 15 at Pioneer Theatre. 801-581-6961.  

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