By my count, the name “Mary” (the middle Bennet sister) appears on only 11 pages in my 367-page edition of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” More space is given to Jane, Elizabeth, Lydia, with sister Kitty a kind of also-ran.
So it’s no surprise that playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon focus on Mary in their richly imagined sequel to the novel, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” now at Capital Repertory Theater in an entertaining production directed by Jane-ophile Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill.
Thanks to program notes and a conversation early on between husband and wife Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Kelsey Rainwater and Grayson Powell, respectively), you don’t have to have read the novel to enjoy the proceedings.
And more info is provided when the eldest sister, Jane (Caroline Whelehan), and husband Charles (Patrick Andrew Jones) arrive for the holidays and catch up with their hosts.
But if you’ve read the novel, your memory of it will enhance your pleasure here, including a clever allusion to the book’s famous opening line.
Mary (Connie Castanzo) is shy, well-read, musically gifted — and moralizing. As an outsider, even in her own family, Mary observes, through spectacles both real and intellectual, the constraints of societal constructs. And we are able to look through a lens polished by two hundred more years of social history to appreciate the dynamics of familial relationships, class, money, and gender being played out during the holidays in 1815 England. (Oh, we still know about family dynamics and holidays, don’t we?)
Into the fold comes hapless Arthur de Bourgh (Sean Mellott), a bookish young man who has just inherited an estate he doesn’t know what to do with. The possibility that he and Mary may soon make a match is briefly derailed by another Bennet sister, Lydia (Marielle Young), and cousin Anne de Bourgh (Ellen Cribbs), but that Mary and Arthur will get together by the curtain is certain.
If I wish that the authors had trimmed about 15 minutes worth of material, I cannot fault a production that charms. Period music, provided on stage by pianist Josh D. Smith and violinist Lauren Wainwright, aptly stitches the scenes together, and colorful, elaborate period costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan aptly stitch the characters together.
Cribbs’s Anne is the height of hauteur — ahem! Rainwater and Whelehan convey the sisterly warmth that the two oldest siblings of a large family often share, but Jane’s and Elizabeth’s real worth shines through when they also embrace their quirky younger sisters.
Powell and Jones score amusingly in a couple of scenes as kind-hearted new husbands trying to keep up with wives whose feminine mysteries both appeal and instruct.
Young is a comic delight as the irritating and wounded Lydia, whose meddling hides a desire simply to be noticed.
Castanzo and Mellott deliver thoroughly wonderful performances. As Arthur and Mary each clutch their books on Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics, we watch them acquire their own, growing- — humorously, nobly, sweetly — into young people ready to claim each other and the world at large. Castanzo’s hard, gleaming smile and Mellott’s crumpled face are ultimately transformed into looks of confidence and joy.
This play is the first in a “Pride and Prejudice” trilogy by Gunderson & Melcon. Here’s hoping that Mancinelli-Cahill eventually brings the sequels to The Rep.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theater, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through Dec. 23
HOW MUCH: $65-$22
MORE INFO: 518.445.7469, or capitalrep.org