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American Stage charms with 'Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley'

Sisters in the cast of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley include (from left) Courtney Anne McLaren as Lydia Wickham, Sadie Lockhart as Jane Bingley, Brooke Tyler Benson as Elizabeth Darcy, and Jenny Lester as Mary Bennet. The show runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 30, 2018. [Joey Clay Photography]
Sisters in the cast of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley include (from left) Courtney Anne McLaren as Lydia Wickham, Sadie Lockhart as Jane Bingley, Brooke Tyler Benson as Elizabeth Darcy, and Jenny Lester as Mary Bennet. The show runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 30, 2018. [Joey Clay Photography]
Published Dec. 18, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — American Stage needed a play during the holiday season, preferably one audiences hadn't seen before. The theater chose Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, an adaptation by Lauren Gunderson and Margaret Melcon that picks up two years after Pride and Prejudice ends.

Adaptations tempt playwrights and theaters for good reasons and bad. They might reflect greatness or bomb terribly. This one exceeds expectations.

In recent years, theaters have produced more plays by Gunderson than any other American playwright alive. She teamed up with Melcon, a playwright and dramaturg, to create a "sequel" to Jane Austen's classic novel, workshopping it with fans of the writer.

In following the family, Gunderson and Melcon do not so much invent new characters as lovingly fill in gaps, following Austen's brushstrokes to paint a slightly larger picture. The quiet Mary Bennet, the middle sister of five, didn't stand out while wedding dramas were spiraling around her. Now those sisters have settled into their lives, and Mary seems content reading zoology books and playing Beethoven sonatas. Jenny Lester embodies a sharply opinionated Mary, one who prefers "honesty to politeness." She's just one of several well-defined, well-acted roles in this show, albeit a crucial one.

Directed by Stephanie Gularte, American Stage's producing artistic director, Miss Bennet benefits from a cozy set designed by Steven K. Mitchell, reflecting a believable warmth in Fitzwilliam Darcy's estate. As with Pride and Prejudice, the family dynamics create a sense of emergency. Only Mary isn't buying the idea that she needs to be paired off — not, at least, until she meets Arthur de Bourgh, a distant cousin to Darcy. Josh Odsess-Rubin is a delight as the cerebral, stammering Arthur, who has no game plan for love because he's never been there before.

The major wrinkle here is that Arthur has just inherited money from Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a distant relative and Darcy's aunt. There are strings attached, it turns out. Britt Michael Gordon plays the gentlemanly Darcy as a steadying influence on others and well matched husband to Elizabeth (Brooke Tyler Benson). As happy as they seem to be, so sister Lydia is needy and nosy. (P&P readers will recall that cad of soldier, Wickham, married her only after Darcy paid him an allowance to do so.)

I won't spoil the biggest conflict brewing. None of it would work without these evenly distributed roles and performances, notably Katie Cunningham as the Anne de Bourgh, Catherine's daughter who arrives later on. As for the challenge undertaken by playwrights who would stand in for Jane Austen, have no fear. The dialogue echoes her style without mimicking it, bringing key points forward with clarity and simplicity. These traits shine brightest as Arthur struggles to find his courage.

"There is truth in your heart left to tell," Darcy says. "You will never forgive yourself if you don't tell it."

The writing also follows 19th-century novel in going on longer than we're accustomed to, embroidering every relationship like an antique place mat. It becomes clear, however, that those extra efforts lead to necessary, joyous ends.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Runs through Dec. 30 at Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. $44 and up. (727) 823-7529. For show times, go to americanstage.org.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.