LOWELL -- As Merrimack Repertory Theatre's latest production reminds us, it is a "universal truth" that family holiday togetherness risks apprehension, annoyance and argument. That truth already seems to be drawing sellout crowds to performances.
"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" reunites Jane Austen's most beloved characters after a long separation. Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon, this comedy honors the novelist by staying true to her characters with witty and charming dialogue.
It has been two years since the oldest Bennet sisters -- Jane and Elizabeth -- proved the merit of the opening line from "Pride and Prejudice": "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
It is now 1815. Elizabeth is the mistress of Pemberley and married to the wealthy Mr. Darcy. Jane is married to another man of fortune, Mr. Bingley, and is pregnant. The Bingleys are due to arrive at Pemberley for Christmas with younger sisters Lydia Wickham and Mary Bennet.
The family reunion is full of charming surprises, unexpected romance and farce.
Elizabeth is trying to start a new tradition, surprising Mr. Darcy with a Christmas tree in their drawing room. (Christmas trees did not become part of the English tradition until the 1840s.) Mr. Darcy, in turn, surprises Elizabeth by inviting a distant relative for Christmas -- Lord Arthur De Bourgh, who has recently inherited a large estate.
The biggest surprise, however, is Mary. Where Elizabeth and Darcy were the main characters in "Pride and Prejudice," the spotlight here is now on this sister.
She is the middle Bennet sister -- plain, bookish and often invisible -- played with style by Amanda Collins. Mary arrives at Pemberley much changed. She has flourished and matured because she is no longer compared to her beautiful and intelligent older sisters (Jane and Elizabeth) or her pretty, but silly younger sisters, Lydia and Kitty, who now lives in London.
Into this family party comes Lord Arthur, a bookish Oxford man. It would seem a match made in heaven for Mary. First, however, she must reckon with flirtatious and loud Lydia. Then, Mary confronts an unexpected female visitor who claims Lord Arthur as her fiancé.
Lord Arthur, played by Vichet Chum, needs rescuing from his predicament. He seems in danger of succumbing to a despotic woman while trying to untangle a flurry of misdirected love letters. Chum's performance is superb. This should not surprise after his stunning one-man show "Knyum," which premiered at MRT this past February.
"Christmas at Pemberley" is a delightful sequel to the 19th-century Austen novel. Austen aficionados will be happy that this play does not trample on their sensibilities. Like the novel, it is a witty and wry look at women's lives in the 19th century. Additionally, these fans will recognize favorite lines from the novel that are included in the play in new contexts.
Even those who do not know Austen will find this play a perfect respite from the madness of the holiday season.
MRT gives supporters and audiences a special Christmas gift with this production, which runs through Dec. 23.