To be transported to Georgian England, all one needs to do for the next few weeks is walk into the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Marx Theatre, where you’ll find the Pemberley estate’s airy library with a parquet floor and tall windows opening onto a countryside view. A glittering crystal chandelier hangs overhead and the Wedgwood-styled ceiling decoration completes the picture-perfect image. John Coyne’s scenic design makes for easy entry into Jane Austen’s world — except for the jarring Christmas tree, a German tradition that was not yet commonplace in England.
The lord of the estate, Fitzwilliam Darcy (John Keabler) is questioning the judgment of his wife Elizabeth (Marina Shay) regarding bringing a tree indoors. Fans of Austen will immediately know these sparring partners from her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. But things have changed: Two years later, Lizzie and Mr. Darcy are married and settled. They have a loving relationship that retains some familiar zip as they contest opinions.
Lizzie has invited her family to visit for Christmas, and Mr. Darcy announces that he’s extended an offer of hospitality to his distant cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Andrew Fallaize). We meet several Bennet sisters, flighty and loquacious as ever. But the focus for Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is plain and bookish Mary (Ayana Workman), who remains unmarried but is more or less happy with her existence. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have extended the world of the colorful Bennet family with this newly invented tale.
Gunderson is one of America’s most currently produced playwrights; in 2016, The Playhouse debuted The Revolutionists, her French Revolution fantasy about Marie Antoinette and three other women in custody and awaiting execution. Know Theatre has staged three of her works, most recently Ada and the Engine. Her scripts often focus on strong female characters. This time it’s previously unobtrusive Mary Bennet, whose nose is constantly in a book — unless she is obsessively rehearsing at the piano.
When Arthur de Bourgh arrives — every bit as nerdy as Mary — it’s obvious he’ll be matched with her. In short order, they start comparing notes and exploring topics that everyone else finds tedious. Of course, true love never runs entirely smoothly, despite the hilarious machinations of romantic manipulator Lydia Bennet Wickham (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), Mary and Lizzie’s flighty young sister who’s trapped in an unhappy marriage. Also in the mix is the pragmatic, grounded and immensely pregnant elder sister Jane (Maribel Martinez), attended to by her solicitous, sentimental husband Charles Bingley (John Ford-Dunker).
Things proceed pleasantly until the arrival of Mr. Darcy’s one-time fiancée, the imperious and disdainful Anne de Bourgh (Kathryn Tkel), who announces that her late mother has ordered her engagement to her distant cousin Arthur. No need for further explanation: Patented ups and downs familiar to Austen fans ensue, contort and settle neatly into an orderly happy ending.
Jumping back to that Christmas tree: It’s the first sign that things are changing. There’s ample evidence that Gunderson and Melcon’s 21st-century feminist perspective brims just below the surface. Mary offers up that her family tires her with constant banter about relationships; she is interested in deeper, more far-flung places and people. She knows what she wants, and she only finds it in books — until she meets meek Arthur, who actually shares her perspective about exploring the world beyond. But he needs to break free.
Blond, bespectacled Fallaize makes Arthur just geeky enough to be lovable, but he’s totally lost when it comes to wooing. He seeks advice from Darcy and Bingley, but their insights are rather useless. Their best recommendation: Ask her opinionated and often meddlesome sisters. (Arthur busily scribbles notes while being instructed.) The resolution comes swiftly, thanks to fine acting by all and fluid and choreographed scene changes staged by director Eleanor Holdridge.
This frothy, witty show has vivid, engaging and amusing characters and a meaningful message about women’s role in society and the need for them to have choices. Miss Bennet is one of the most produced shows on American stages this season. (It could become an alternative to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.) The Playhouse’s glowing, heartfelt production will surely please audiences, especially fans of Jane Austen.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 10. More info/tickets: cincyplay.com.