Nothing exciting happens when you’re sitting. At least that’s what Lydia Wickham believes, and she proclaims it loudly during Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley. Then why did I pay $45 to settle myself into a seat at the Jungle Theater for over two hours on Friday night?
Well, because she’s wrong. Plenty of exciting things happen when you’re sitting. Lydia’s sisters Jane Bingley (played by Shae Palic) and Mary (Vinecia Coleman) know it. In the scene in question, the former is occupied with needlework, the other engrossed in a book. The writers of this final installment in a post-Pride & Prejudice trilogy know it, too. The plot of their Christmas at Pemberley finale is stuffed like a prize turkey with excitement of the Jane Austen variety: holiday gatherings, surprise guests, damning notes, new flames, unrequited love, secret identities, screaming matches, and a dog for good measure (who doesn’t love an acting dog in a holiday show?). Oh, and don’t forget plenty of winks to the audience, like the sitting quip.
Is this the first time you’re hearing of the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy? Then you’re in the same position I was before seeing this production. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon penned two previous plays in this sequence, Miss Bennet (which is actually being staged at Lyric Arts in Anoka this season, if you want to try a double feature) and The Wickhams; all three take place around the same Christmas two years after the conclusion of Pride & Prejudice. All your favorite characters reappear, including Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, though those two take a back seat to the drama of the other Bennet women and, in this latest edition, Darcy’s sister Georgiana.
It’s not necessary to have seen the two previous plays before buying a ticket to Georgiana & Kitty, which is co-directed by Christina Baldwin (the Jungle’s artistic director) and Angela Timberman, nor is Austen’s novel even required reading. The theater not only provides synopses in the program which you can read in the lobby beforehand with a glass of wine purchased at concessions (or a cup of coffee, which is available for free on a table, a nice touch other theaters could stand to copy…), but they’ve assembled a giant relationship tree on the wall opposite the entrance so you can quickly digest who’s who on your way to the bathroom.
Speaking of which, the title refers both to Darcy’s younger sister (Marisa B. Tejeda) and Catherine “Kitty” Bennet (Becca Hart, who I recently loved in Theater Latté Da’s Merrily We Roll Along), who have become close friends — even closer than the rest of the tight-knit family. The first act finds them all gathered at Pemberley, Darcy’s English country estate, with Georgiana expecting two guests, Henry Grey (Dustin Bronson) who shares her love of music and to whom she’s been writing letters for the better part of a year without her brother’s knowledge or permission, and his friend Thomas O’Brien (Tom Reed). The second act catches up with the whole gang some years later, but to divulge the when, where, how, and who would be to give too much away. Wouldn’t you know, it’s once again at Christmastime.
As holiday entertainment, Georgiana & Kitty overflows with Yuletide cheer, intersperses the events with a few healthy dollops of Christmas blues, and ends the evening with a rousing carol to send you off into the below-freezing Minnesota night. The costumes by Sarah Bahr are elegant, even up close in this tiny theater, and the set design (which includes walls that do double duty in separate scenes, and is also by Bahr) feels sumptuous despite being relatively sparse (this is a 150-or-so-seat theater). The Bennet sisters and Georgiana as an entire unit immediately replicate that particular Austen environment with their easy familiarity and interjection-riddled timing that’s so energizing for its existence in a society that champions female meekness. But as a continuation of Austen’s legacy and a contemporary play in its own right, Georgiana & Kitty is a mixed bag.
Gunderson and Melcon’s writing shines when the scales tip towards comedy. Still, you get the sense that some roles could veer into ham-fistedness in certain hands. Blessedly, Adelin Phelps as the youngest sister Lydia, the obvious comic relief, plays the part of a shrill busybody with careful consideration, where every dramatic sigh and slapstick aside feels part of a real character (rather than a theatrical device). Bronson creeps to the brink of absurdity with his portrayal of the bashful Henry Grey, but he keeps his crippling shyness within reason, earning all the laughs rather than pulling them like teeth. And while Georgiana and Henry are the leading couple of this story, it’s the secondary arc of Kitty and Thomas O’Brien that wins the day. It’s Hart who feels most at ease in the fast-paced, British-inflected dialogue of this quasi-Austen, not losing a step despite recently transitioning out of a Sondheim musical, and Tom Reed’s charming O’Brien matches her glance for glance and barb for loving barb. (After recently watching Disenchanted, Reed calls to mind the beaming charisma of James Marsden.) I left the theater wanting to be invited to their Christmas party.
If you’re coming to see how Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are getting along, you’ll likely be disappointed. Elizabeth (Sun Mee Chomet, who is following up another premiere in the Guthrie’s Sally & Tom) is depicted as a diffuser to Darcy (James Rodríguez), who is still prejudiced and overbearing, apparently having learned nothing by the end of Austen’s tale. What’s more, Chomet and Rodríguez play them less like ardent lovers and more like a sitcom couple, with Lizzy always right, Darcy always wrong, and cuteness substituted for the once legendary romance. At one point, Lizzy boops Darcy on the nose. She may even say “boop.”
The biggest problem is that Georgiana & Kitty feels like a Downton Abbey movie. That is, a watered down version of the original, a piece that exists mainly because the writers knew there was an audience for it. But instead of replicating the nuance of the source material, trusting the audience to understand the exceptional nature of these women in Regency era England, we’re presented with a story that ends up on the wrong side of schmaltz. If you missed Downton, then another way to think of this is Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas on the Hallmark Channel.
Nonetheless, I’d gladly pay the full $45 (even though a pay-as-you-are pricing structure is offered) to see this Jungle Theater production instead of sitting at home and watching any Christmas movie. This is part of a world premiere commission with two other U.S. theaters (one in California presented it first last year), so this is a unique treat for us in the Twin Cities. Plus, with this cast of nine, it’s a chance to experience an array of impressive local talent in an intimate space. Nothing exciting may happen when you’re sitting at home, but that won’t be the case when you visit Pemberley.
Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley
2951 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Playing through December 23
Tickets: $45, though if you need to pay less or can afford to pay more, they allow for that
Buy tickets here