Encore Michigan

Open Book brings ‘Pride and Prejudice’ sequel to delightful life at Christmas time

Review November 26, 2019 David Kiley

TRENTON, Mich.–Jane Austen fans are so ardent that the notion of a lost manuscript being published is enough to send even the most prim Regency-period spinsters into quite a tizzy. No such manuscript has surfaced, but Open Book Theatre here is in production of a first-class script, a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” written by prolific playwright Laura Gunderson and writing partner Margot Melcon called Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.

Mary Bennett (Annie Dilworth) who is a supporting character in the original novel that centers around her sister Elizabeth (Claire Jolliffe) and Mr. D’Arcy (Jeremy Kucharek), is the focus of our attention in this story. She is bookish and nerdy, and has glibly resigned herself to living unmarried in the attic of her father’s estate. That is until Arthur de Bourgh (Dan Johnson) enters the story. Even more nerdy than Mary, Arthur appears to be the perfect match for the socially awkward but sharp-tongued Mary.

Ms. Dilworth is exceptional and has full command of the period dialogue that the playwrights have echoed from Austen’s pages. Her character is out of step with her times–in many ways too smart for whatever room she is in dominated by male voices and mustaches. And Dilworth delivers without slipping out of her historical period into modernity. Mr. Johnson is a walking clench. Incredibly uptight, amusingly nervous around Mary, and even befuddled about an engagement to which he is a party. Johnson finds the levels of a man in love with a woman he finds too good be true and at the same time terrified that he has done so. And he plays Arthur in a way that does not make us weary of the character by the end of the play, which could be a danger in a lesser actor’s hands.

Sarah Hawkins directed the cast, and exhibits her own command over the period story, which has equal elements of both drama and comedy, just as Pride & Prejudice has; it is a Regency-era rom-com

Hawkins has assembled a first class cast of supporting actors. Luciana Piazza plays the very pregnant Jane Bingley, Mary’s older sister, and infuses her character with radiance and exuberance over both her pregnancy, as well as her hope and enthusiasm for Mary’s possibilities for love. Ashley Lyle plays Anne, the perfect shrew who claims to be engaged to Arthur. At first that’s all we think she is. But Ms. Lyle brings to this hyper defensive woman a sense of fragility that make us actually root for her to find happiness and security. There is a lesson here, beautifully delivered, to not judge people based on just a little bit of information that maybe just impacts you in a moment. Danielle Wright plays Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister, full of silliness and romance, and already looking for another bite at the love apple as apparently George Wickham from “Pride and Prejudice” proved not to be a lasting love.

Both Mr. Kucharek and Tim Pollack as Mr. Bingley exhibit good comedic timing with the playwright’s work–the devoted husbands very much in the minority in this feminine-dominated estate home.

Scenic design by Stephanie Baugher, the drawing room of the Bennet estate, is crisply done, and the furniture is passable for the time if not dead-on accurate for the era. Harley Miah designed lighting. Costumes by Cheryl Zemke registered appropriate for the time, with dresses cut to the period and the men’s cravat’s in fine flower. Ms. Hawkins handled sound design. And props are by Reyna DeSilva.

It is a fraught business to write a play that Jane Austen herself might have written. Ms. Gunderson has proved herself in the past adept at writing period dialogue in some of her other plays, and this certainly is no exception to her track record.

A good time is had by all celebrating Christmas with the Bennets and Bingleys in Trenton, Michigan.