The Buffalo Theatre Ensemble kicks off its 2023-2024 season with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice.” The first of a trio of “Pemberley” plays written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet” takes place during the 1815 Christmas season, two years after the events of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Whitney Dottery plays Miss Mary Bennet, a bookish, pragmatic girl unfortunately blessed with four vivacious sisters. (To make matters worse, she’s also the middle child!) “Plain” Mary is single and unattached at the ripe old age of twenty-one, so naturally, all hope is lost, and her family writes her off as a spinster for life. Whether they mean to or not, the Bennet family, including older sisters Jane (Charlotte Foster) and Elizabeth (Paige Klopfenstein), begin to write Mary’s future for her, forgetting that opinionated Mary likely has some thoughts about her own life.
The dialogue is wordy and witty. There are a few choice references and Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the show for Janeites to especially appreciate, but this show could appeal to fans of the regency period or just enthusiasts of precise language. The set is warm and cozy, a combination of a library and drawing room, with a fireplace, piano, writing desk, seats and a red and cream couch, fittingly reminiscent of a candy cane. And of course, the room is bursting with books.
The roles are ideally cast. Dottery’s Mary is resolute yet filled with a beguiling curiosity contagious to the right person. As that person, Daniel Millhouse is an effusive Arthur de Bourgh, whose social awkwardness is both funny and endearing. Danielle Kerr is a scene-stealer as the impulsive, attention-seeking Lydia Wickham, whose batting eyes and coquettish ways have (surprise surprise) remained unchanged by marriage. Klopfenstein retains much of what makes clever Elizabeth such an iconic character in literature, while also adding a new dimension of maturity, as would be expected from the lady of a grand estate. We see a more open and expressive Mr. Darcy in this show than in the original novel. Robert Hunter Bry demonstrates Darcy’s newfound warmness in loving conversations with his sister-in-law Mary and other moments of depth with his cousins Arthur and Anne de Bourgh (Katherine Abel, steely but ultimately yielding). Rounding out this octet are the two Bingleys, the serene, glowing Jane (Foster) and her affable husband Charles (Benedict L. Slabik II).
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” is a feel-good show for those who like their holiday entertainment comedic, comforting and challengingly verbose. I hope that the same company and production staff attempt to complete the “Pemberley” plays in upcoming seasons and gift us with more character studies of Austen’s beloved personalities.
“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” from the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble (BTE) at the McAninch Arts Center (MAC), 425 Fawell Boulevard, Glen Ellyn, (630)942-4000, AtTheMAC.org, $44. Through December 17.