Northlight Theatre’s Gift to Austin Fans
I must admit that I entered Northlight Theatre in Skokie with some hesitation about a new play that took Jane Austen characters, put them in an imaginary sequel to Pride & Prejudice and had Christmas in the title. From past theatrical holiday experiences this has led to disastrous results for me. From the description this could be an evening of groans and excessive sentimentality. However, within the first few moments of Miss Bennet, Christmas at Pemberley I realized the special gift that was being opened before me.
This is a special treat for Jane Austinites of all ages with this imagined sequel to P&P, imaginatively and expertly penned by two women who seem intimately familiar with the world and works of Jane Austin, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon.
The story revolves around the only unmarried spinster sister of the Bennet family, Mary and her falling in love with the handsome Arthur DeBourgh, nephew of the late Catherine DeBourgh. The story is resplendent with wit and written in a classic style that seems fresh. With sharp turns and heartwarming moments that truly touch, Miss Bennet never veers into oversentimentality. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon bring a refreshing level of maturity to their writing often lacking in new works.
Miss Bennet Fine Performances and Period Detail
Having directed the Chicago premiere of Michael Bloom’s adaptation of another Austen classic, Emma for Dead Writers Theatre Collective in 2014, and immersing myself into Jane Austen’s world for one full year,
I am aware of the customs and manners of Regency England and, Miss Bennet, for the most part, follows them with accuracy. It is refreshing to see detail in the props that normally go unnoticed in many period pieces which is so important for taking us into a certain time in history.
Northlight has decided to utilize color blind casting which does not always mesh with the time period of 1815 England. That aside, they have assembled a mostly talented cast, sparkling like diamonds. In the two main leads Emily Berman’s Mary Bennet and Erik Hellman’s Arthur DeBourgh possess the right mix of chemistry, comic skill and underlying passion that keeps us on the edge of our seats, rooting that all will come out well for them. Their performances are both nuanced and thoughtfully drawn and naturally mannered as if they were raised in the Regency era.
Coming on at the end of the first act like a Regency cyclone Bri Sudia’s Anne DeBourgh, Arthur’s unknown fiancé, delivers a magnificent performance. She also is given some of the best comic lines of the evening. What makes her character standout is the pain and rejection which lies just under the surface of her barnacled exterior. She understands that comedy comes from pain and achieves just the right balance to draw one of the best characters in the play. Her performance is worth the price of admission.
Given the two roles with the most preconceived ideas of how they should be played Samantha Beach and Alex Goodrich do lovely jobs as the Darcys while Alia Peck makes a fine Jane Bingley. Tosin Morohunfola (who dazzled us last year in Northlight’s premiere of Butler) is a joy to watch, possessing a strong stage presence, sharp comic timing and great chemistry with Goodrich’s Darcy.
Masterful Director’s Touch
Director Jessica Thebus has once again shown her mastery through her excellent direction, never allowing the play to bog down, get too comically broad or overly sentimental, keeping the pace quick, light and urgent.
Set Designers Richard & Jacqueline Penrod have a knowing understanding of the limitations of Northlight’s space and provide a set which servers the show well (I wish the furniture selections could have looked more expensive and the upholsters had done a better job with getting rid of wrinkles and folds in some of the pieces.).
Northlight Theatre, with a reputation of developing and presenting new works have, along with playwright’s Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, given the world (and Chicago) a new Christmas tradition with this fresh and delightful new play about the power of love, dreams and Christmas.
Miss Bennet is perfect for those who love Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice and Christmas themed plays with wit and charm.
People who are Jane Austen fanatics may have trouble with some of the period anachronisms.
Now through December 18
Tuesdays: 7:30pm (November 15, 22 and 29 only)
Wednesdays: 1:00pm and 7:30pm
Thursdays: 7:30pm (except November 24)
Saturdays: 2:30pm (except November 12) and 8:00pm
Sundays: 2:30pm and 7:00pm (November 13 and 27 only
501 Skokie Blvd
Student tickets are $15, any performance (subject to availability)
Tickets may be purchased at the Northlight Box Office located in the Northlight Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. 847-673-6300 www.northlight.org
Charles Osgood Photography