Rosemary Laughlin/Review: Station's 'Pemberley' a must for Jane Austen fans

Rosemary Laughlin/Review: Station's 'Pemberley' a must for Jane Austen fans

By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN

Following major films of "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma" in the 1990s, spinoffs of Jane Austen's work have proliferated as if from a cornucopia.

The most popular contemporary "translation" was the film "Clueless," set at Beverly Hills High, starring Alicia Silverstone. Jo Baker's book "Longbourne" kept the Austen time and setting but took the servants' point of view. P.D. James merged Austen characters with murder mystery in "Death Comes to Pemberley." Joanna Trollope created 21st-century girls seeking careers via university and the internet. Et cetera!

No matter the differences, all the works reliably use Austen's major plot fuel — social class, romantic yearnings, marriage with money. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon do so at Pemberley, the Derbyshire estate of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy several years after their marriage.

In "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," there are two unmarried guests at the estate — Mrs. Darcy's sister Mary and a cousin of Mr. Darcy, Arthur de Bourgh, who has just become the heir by entail of a large estate. Both of them are intellectual, with decided preferences for books and, in Mary's case, music.

Thus so suited, surely they will fall in love? But, wait. Both are socially awkward. Potential obstacles appear in the forms of Mary's flirtatious and unhappily married sister Lydia, and a cousin Anne de Bourgh, who claims Arthur as her legally affirmed betrothed. There are also philosophical considerations about the nature of choice — "having choice or not, and having it and being afraid to use it."

The Station Theatre in Urbana has hosted many unusual sets, but I cannot recall one more elegantly spacious than Pemberley's drawing room designed by director Joi Hofsommer. It features dark walls with height-creating white panels. Patterned Oriental carpeting enhances the floor.

The costumes by Sheri Doyle are rich and lavish; the women wear Empire-style, high-waisted gowns with bolero jackets or shawls. The men have flowing-sleeved white shirts, formal vests and tailcoats. The women's hairstyles seem taken from early 19th-century portraits, featuring topknots and ringlet curls.

The actors are excellently distinctive. Dominique Allen captures both winsome and intellectual qualities in Mary Bennet as she achieves mature realizations. Ashton Goodly as Arthur de Bourgh is both physically attractive and bookishly scientific. Jenna Kohn sparkles as the flirtatious Lydia, hiding her loneliness in mischief. The Darcys, Celia Mueller and Aaron Miller, are intelligently sedate, yet able to debate whether the Christmas tree in their home is a silly fad or a lovely new tradition. As Jane Bingley, Uche Nwansi brings an extraordinarily luminous presence to the stage. Tyler Cook as Charles Bingley cheerfully basks in his joy of her pregnancy. Misty Martin as Anne de Bourgh has clearly taken on her deceased mother's authoritarian aura of entitlement; I straightened a bit in my seat when she commanded an order.

The cast members speak with gentle English accents, just right for American ears and the formally phrased Austen vocabulary. They accomplish the gracious civility due their characters.

This production is a must for lovers of Jane Austen's work, especially "Pride and Prejudice." I count myself a "Jane-ite," but what of those who are completely unfamiliar? They will miss the delightful allusions and character nuances? Perhaps, but there is still much to enjoy in the plot development.

For anyone with siblings, there is identification with relationship problems; Mary describes her dilemma of "feeling invisible" in the midst of sisters who are known for beauty, wit, or, negatively, raucous silliness. Conversely, Arthur, who is an only child, describes growing up "confused by the complexities of people." He is "more at home with the corals of eastern Australia."

The play allows us to relish politeness of address and manners. It is more than relaxing; it is balm not to hear denigrating descriptions and coarse fillers that afflict contemporary social discourse.

"Pride and Prejudice" has a famous opening sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." If you go to the play, you should listen for a sly, clever insertion of that sentence elsewhere — with the change of one word. Go for it!

I conclude by noting that The Station now offers a matinee performance, which makes attendance ideal for retirees or those who do not drive at night.

Rosemary Laughlin is a retired English teacher from University High School.

If you go

What: "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley."

Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U.

When: 3 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes, including intermission.

Tickets: $15; students and seniors $10.

More information: 217-384-4000.

Topics (1):Theater