Poor Mary Bennet.
The middle child of the five Bennet sisters, she has been mostly relegated to the sidelines of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” for two centuries, while her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth and even the youngest daughter, flighty Lydia – Lydia, for goodness’ sake! – hog much of the action.
That is until 2016, when playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon gave Mary a makeover of sorts – and put her at the center of her own story in what amounts to an unofficial sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.”
Gunderson and Melcon’s play, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” has become a holiday favorite of playhouses across the nation. The show opens Friday for a nine-performance run at Albany Civic Theater. (See the related story for showtimes, ticket information and COVID-19 protocols.)
“Christmas at Pemberley” takes place two years after the events in Austen’s novel. Elizabeth and her husband, Darcy, have settled into life at Darcy’s estate and are entertaining guests, including Mary, over the holidays. Mary, depicted in Austen’s novel as the plainest of the Bennet sisters, is starting to come to terms with the possibility that she will remain single for the rest of her days.
But surprising sparks fly between Mary (Sanaya Forbes) and another guest at Pemberley, Arthur de Bourgh (Christopher Ridgely). Will the sparks be strong enough to survive obstacles such as a flirtatious Lydia and an unexpected engagement? And what’s with that newfangled Christmas tree at Pemberley?
Playgoers familiar with the work of Gunderson – among the nation’s most-produced playwrights – will notice some of her trademarks in “Pemberley,” including a focus on strong women.
That was certainly some of the attraction for Johanna Spencer, who’s directing the Albany Civic production: Gunderson’s female characters are “modern and accessible,” Spencer said, even when they’re set in period pieces. “And the writing is really quick and bright.”
“In fact, as I was producing this show, as we were in rehearsal, one of my first thoughts was ‘This is a modern play, with modern sensibilities,’” Spencer said. So, despite the show’s period setting and costumes, “I’ve actually included specifically some modern ideas in it.”
Spencer’s production also aims to have a bit of a fairy-tale feeling, with a pared-down set design by Don Taco, mood-setting lighting by John Elliott, and costumes designed by Ruth Drake.
The characters do spend time remarking about the Christmas tree, and for a reason: In 1815, when the play takes place, Christmas trees were a relatively new trend in England, imported from a centuries-old tradition in Germany. (Actress Erah McMullen, who plays Jane in the Albany Civic production, has designed the show’s Christmas tree.)
Casting the show started with Forbes’ Mary, Spencer said: “I needed somebody who was really strong and smart and could find the nuances of relationships, even though she needs to be very independent in her own right.”
Almost as important was finding the right actor for Arthur, Mary’s unexpected love interest, Spencer said: “I needed someone who could cross the line between being intellectual and – should I say? – geeky. In these days, he’d definitely be tied to his computer all day.” But Ridgely’s Arthur also needs to have what Spencer called “that wide-eyed surprise at love when it happens.”
In fact, all her cast members have committed fully to their parts, Spencer said. “The surprising thing to me is how passionate all of these actors are about this show and what lengths they’re willing to go to to make sure that it works for them and everyone else.”
Like many of the early shows at Albany Civic this season in the wake of the COVID pandemic, “Christmas at Pemberley” has come together in a relative hurry – but Spencer said it’s been a joy to get back on the stage. “It’s been just really a thrill actually being able to move forward.”
If You Go
WHAT: “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, a production of Albany Civic Theater.
WHEN: Dec. 3, 4, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are scheduled for Dec. 12 and 19 at 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 111 First Ave. W. in Albany.
HOW MUCH: Tickets are $14 general admission, $11 for students, seniors, veterans, and holders of Oregon Trail Cards. Click here to purchase tickets online.
OF NOTE: Attendees must show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test for COVID performed within 72 hours of the performance. Patrons must wear a mask. For purposes of social distancing, the house is limited to a third of capacity – about 50 seats per performance (all the more reason to buy tickets early). All Albany Civic volunteers and actors are required to be vaccinated.