by Beki Pineda

MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY – Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon; Directed by Linda Suttle. Produced by Firehouse Theatre Company (the John Hand Theatre, 7653 East 1st Place, Denver) through December 17. Tickets available at firehousetheatercompany.com.

Sometimes it’s very hard to see the work of a director on a production. It looks like the actors just learn the lines and intuitively know what to do. But having read this script prior to seeing the production and then observing the finished product, brought home with clarity the crucial role of the director. In this case, the director is Linda Suttle. She worked with the cast and crew to create the pretty stage pictures and charm this play about family relationships needed. She created a safe space for the actors to explore the histories of each of their characters and meld them together in a present that is authentic and illustrative. The telling glances between a husband and a wife – the unexpected touch of a hand – assistance when rising – a roll of the eyes – even the ushering out of the room of a noisy relative behaving inappropriately. But even more – the understanding shown for differences within the family – the tolerance for mistakes – the joy in accomplishments and successes in individual endeavors. All reflected in action and understanding generated by discussion, rehearsal and creativity.

This is a delightful production that embodies the spirit of Christmas without cliches or over-the-top sentimentality. The humor is not “set up” – no “wait for it” moments. The humor is born of the characters’ reactions to surprising situations in which they find themselves. It’s gentle, intelligent and worthy of both chuckles and guffaws. Beautifully rendered by this talented cast.

The Bennet family of Regency England consists of five daughters, three of which are married. The two oldest – Jane and Lizzie – are happily settled; Lizzie having married Darcy from the original Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Jane also found her match in Bingley. Kitty is enjoying the “season” in London and not yet present at Pemberley. The youngest, Lydia struggles to put on a brave front as her marriage to Wickham has brought shame on the family and sorrow to Lydia’s bright spirit.

Which leaves Mary – the “Miss” Bennet of the title – the middle sister more interested in intellectual pursuits than romantic. She cares for the aging parents, plays the piano, and finds solace in books. Her sisters think she is content; she is not.

In this family gathering wanders a distant cousin who has just inherited a nearby estate. Management of an estate has never been a goal for him and takes him away from his beloved studies. He opts to stay at Pemberley over the holiday instead of taking up the mantle of gentleman farmer just now. His uncertain steps into his new role and this rambunctious family generated much of the fun.

The cast that brings this story to life is mostly new to Denver and what wonderful additions they are all making to the acting pool. The women: Stephanie Alderton plays Mary with a steely certainty that occasionally gives way to disappointment with her lot in life. Stephanie captures that ambivalence perfectly. Jane and Lizzie are the sensible settled sisters played by Rachel Barkalow and Kate Poling. They bring their sisterly love and concern to the forefront in their machinations on behalf of Mary and their younger unhappy sister Lydia played by Kaylee Hawkins. Kaylee adds a humorous whimsy to her character that reveals her desperate need to be entertained and have fun, no matter the cost. A non-family member also shows up to add to the layer of chaos. Another distant cousin, Anne (played by Monica Toole) brings her elegant snobbery to the Bennet door unannounced and barely welcomed. But even she is eventually won over.

The men:  The two happy husbands Darcy and Bingley are played by Elliott Murphy and Matthew Parone with a comradely ease. They understand that in this family, it’s sometimes better to just get out of the way.  They enjoy their wives and their spirited relatives; they are “in” the family without being “of” the family. Matthew Murry is the overwhelmed Arthur, new estate owner, awkward conversationalist, eternal student, bemused observer of life, and confused by the feminine turmoil into which he finds himself thrown. Casting directors all over town should be looking into this maelstrom of new talent that too has arrived unannounced but most heartily welcomed.

I would be remiss to overlook the lovely costumes created by Rachel Finley that are so flattering to both men and women. They speak to the elegance of the era and the social status of the Bennet’s one and all. The hairstyles are authentic and equally flattering. The set – designed on a napkin by the director, constructed by Jeff Jesmer, and painted by Megan Davis – meets the demands of the script and places us squarely into an elegant lived-in home. A Christmas tree takes center stage and as a not-yet-tradition requires constant explanation as each new guest arrives. But in the final scenes as it is slowly decorated, becomes the centerpiece it was meant to be. A series of small “interludes” between scenes allows the actors to come on stage in character to interact and demonstrate the closeness of the family while making what small adjustments to the set must be done. These are accompanied by an equally elegant set of period music found and edited by Rick Reid, Sound Designer. Emily Maddox provided the subtle muted light – also elegant – for the show.

I can’t seem to get away from using the word “elegant.” There’s a reason for that.

A WOW factor of 8.75!!

 

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