Review: A sputtering, delightful Ian Jones leads a strong cast in Fresno State’s ‘Miss Bennet’
Elizabeth Bennet, whose romantic entanglement with the handsome Mr. Darcy has been setting hearts fluttering for centuries, is the A-list star of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” In a sequel to the beloved novel, you’d expect Elizabeth to get the best perks: the fanciest trailer, biggest paycheck, and first dibs on a “Good Morning, Regency England” promotional interview.
Pictured above: Ian Jones (Arthur) and Madeline Rydberg (Anne) in ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.’ Photo: Fresno State
But one of the fun parts of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s brisk and clever “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” which is heading into its final weekend at Fresno State, is that Elizabeth is merely a secondary player. In this loosely imagined theatrical “sequel,” the central role is the bookish Mary Bennet, practically ignored in “Pride and Prejudice” and essentially written off there as a spinster-in-waiting. In “Pemberley,” Mary gets a chance to shine.
Related story: Evangelia Pappas and Fresno State celebrate a very Austen Christmas at ‘Pemberley’
That, in turn, gives the show an underdog appeal and a sense of coming at the Austen tale in a fresh and invigorating way.
In “Pemberley,” directed with his customary flair by Brad Myers, Mary (Evangelia Pappas) has traveled to visit Elizabeth (Sofia McCurry) and celebrate Christmas in the home she shares with Darcy (Jacob Franz). The first thing Elizabeth shows off is her “Christmas tree,” a new fad. (She’s a first adopter in England, but the custom has already caught on in Germany.) Mary, ever the learned (and know-it-all) sister, correctly pegs it as a spruce tree, not the fir that others in the room assume.
That little tidbit is important a little later when another guest arrives to spend the holidays at Pemberley: the bookish and spectacularly nerdy Arthur de Bourgh (Ian Jones), whose chaotic red hair, lack of social graces and striking shyness make him a less-than-dashing leading young man. He has, however, recently inherited a huge country estate after the death of his family’s matriarch, the meddlesome Lady Catherine de Bourgh of “Pride and Prejudice” fame, which certainly increases his stock on the bachelor market. Arthur also can tell the difference between a fir and a spruce, which sparks Mary’s interest. Match.com would approve.
When the play premiered in 2016, a round of major critics suggested that the Christmas angle of the show might be an alternative to “A Christmas Carol” in terms of positioning it as a staple holiday production — the kind of show that could be brought back on a nearly annual basis. Playing off the first line of “Pride and Prejudice,” the Washington Post noted: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a theater aspiring to community goodwill, not to mention a dependable income stream, must be in want of a holiday show.”
I’m not so sure about “Pemberley” knocking Scrooge off his perch, however. The play is a pleasant diversion, but it also has something of an inert quality to it as well in terms of the plot. It’s fun to watch Mary and Arthur bumble around in the first act deciding if they like each other or not. But the inevitable roadblock to that romance thrown up in the second by the playwrights feels a little forced. I don’t think it’s in the running to be a holiday tradition.
This Fresno State production is a visual treat, particularly Regina Harris’ lighting design and Kristine Doiel’s sumptuous period costumes. (And a hat tip to wig master Rachel Martinez.) Jeff Hunter’s solid, elegant set gives a sleek and sophisticated ambiance to the production.
The acting is nice. (For some reason the efforts the actors make to project to the back of the John Wright Theatre stood out to me; the diction was good, but overall the delivery seemed a little “shouty” at the opening weekend performance I attended.) A likable Pappas plays the nerdy bookworm with much less prim restraint than you’d expect — her respiratory attack when asked if she’s married is a hoot — and she deftly captures Mary’s frustration with how trapped she feels in her life. (One of the themes of the play is that women can control their own destinies, a rather groundbreaking concept from Austen herself.) Teya Juarez, as the “problem” sister, Lydia — she’s the one who ran off with Mr. Wickham and now feels her own sense of entrapment — is a comic highlight as her character flirts with Arthur. Madeline Rydberg, as a late-arriving antagonist, delivers an amusing and textured performance that actually makes you feel a little sorry for her character.
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And I was charmed by Franz’s good-natured turn as Darcy, who plays affable host and broad-minded husband with an amiable, understated appeal. (The men in this play don’t have much to do except sit back and let things happen to them, which is kind of a nice gender twist, when you think about it.)
My favorite in the bunch is Jones, whose nervous tics and sputtering presence as the continually fraught Arthur is crowd-pleasing fun. (It can come close to becoming too broad, but Myers keeps him from crossing the line.)
I’ll leave you with something that intrigued me from the play. It’s a comment that Darcy makes regarding the impact of fatherhood. He points out that the Bennet sisters grew up in the same household, but each of them emerged with quite different personalities. Perhaps that’s one of the essences of Jane Austen and a reason she’s still so beloved today: Our existences may be molded and shaped by our upbringing and circumstances, but we can stake a claim of agency in our own lives — both women and men. Even in a sequel, happily, there’s a lot of wiggle room.
‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,’ continues through Dec. 15, Fresno State John Wright Theatre. Tickets are $17 general, $10 students.